Sharon Willett took her recently awarded MBE medal on holiday with her to Cyprus. With customary bravado, Shaz, as she’s known to her friends, wanted to involve her late father, Roger Keeton, in the royal honour. The Cypriot custom of placing a picture of one you love outside a church meant she could connect the two events on the island.
Her mother Christine, brother Simon and husband Len, all accompanied Sharon to Buckingham Palace for the award. ‘I have five children, and you’re only allowed to take three guests, so I took my Mum, Len and Simon,’ says Shaz.
Sharon Willett, a customer services expert at Newark Northgate station and winner of the Lifesaver Award at the RailStaff Awards 2012, joined the railway 10 years ago.
In October 2011, she attended the Network Rail – Samaritans suicide prevention course. Only three months later, she put what she’d learnt to good use late one night at Newark, when she saw a 15-year-old boy alone on the station.
‘He seemed to have isolated himself at the far end of the platform and showed signs of emotional distress,’ says Shaz. She approached the teenager and started a conversation. It emerged he had been bullied, hadn’t felt able to tell his parents and had decided to take his own life.
Sharon quietly alerted control, who promptly isolated the line stopping all trains. She then guided the young man to a waiting room and after talking with him further, he let her call his parents. The boy’s mother later returned to the station to thank Sharon.
‘Since then, I have subsequently intervened a couple of times where the potential of them taking their own life was a real possibility,’ she says.
On one occasion, Christopher Garnett, erstwhile head of GNER, arrived unannounced at Newark. Spotting a man seemingly lost and confused on the down fast platform, Shaz approached him with her usual ‘Are you alright, darling’ and prepared to talk him down. Far from remonstrating with her and station manager Phil Beck, Garnett congratulated them and often retold the story, citing it as one of the best examples of customer service he had ever witnessed.
The MBE was awarded by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. ‘Prince Charles was incredible, very warm, supportive and approachable, and he was really proud of the Samaritans and Network Rail partnership,’ said Shaz, speaking from Cyprus. ‘He’s actually a patron of Samaritans, which I hadn’t realised.
I’ve invited him to Newark, and he told the man on his left to make a note and sort it. I think we might get him!’
The Prince of Wales is a noted supporter of railways. ‘He asked me what happened that night and I told him. There’s always someone else out there, and we have to keep training people and keep helping them.’
After the presentation, it was back home to the family and a big party at what Shaz calls Willett Towers with their five children and friends.
‘The whole day felt surreal but wonderful. But this award is really for all of us, for the railway staff everywhere who work day and night and so often save lives.’
Sharon told reporters, ‘I was the girl who stayed at home, brought the kids up and never went out to work.’
She describes her job as very rewarding and believes in putting something back. She is involved in suicide prevention work, often travelling to meetings and presentations in her own time. A holiday in Cyprus at a friend’s villa is proving the perfect antidote to a busy family and professional life.
‘I have the MBE with me in here in Cyprus. I took it up to a church to be blessed by a priest.’ This is a widespread practice in Cyprus.
‘My father died, but he was a devout Christian. The custom here is to put a photo in a tree, light a candle and go in the church where the priest will bless the medal.’
British and Greek friends on the island helped arrange the blessing. ‘I wanted my Dad to be involved somehow, and this way I think he is.’