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Staff With 80 Years of Service Bid Farewell to Billingham Forum

REGULARS at a popular North-East leisure centre have paid tribute to two long-serving members of staff as they bid farewell.

Having grown up in Billingham and spent their entire working lives at Billingham Forum, Jo-Anne Keeley and Graham Haswell are familiar to visitors, with nearly 80 years of experience between them, but now the two have decided the time is right to retire.

A keen netballer in her youth, Jo followed her love of sport into a job as a porter with the Forum in 1985, aged just 20. Now, 39 years later, she is stepping down from her post as Duty Manager and Training Assessor, and is looking forward to spending more time in her caravan.

She said: “I’ve spent my career here just because I’m passionate about Billingham Forum. We don’t do it for the money, we do it because we love seeing people enjoy themselves.

“Now we’re at the stage where we’re seeing people we remember welcoming as children bringing their children in, and even grandkids, and that’s what made me think ‘it’s time to retire’.”

Billingham Forum is described as one of the region’s most iconic leisure destinations, and boasts a variety of modern facilities, including an award-winning ice rink, a theatre, a gym, a climbing wall, a creche and sport facilities.

Graham joined the Forum – which is now managed by Tees Active – in 1983. He applied for two jobs: lifeguard and porter.

“The interviews went really well, and I was actually offered both jobs,” he laughs. “Jo’s right, we don’t do this job for the money, but back then, yeah, I took the life-guard job because it was more money!”

He was later promoted to supervisor, and in 2009 he became the centre’s Assistant Manager. “It’s been a hard job at times, but always very rewarding,” he says. “Jo and I both wanted to stay on into the new year and make sure we were leaving the Forum in good hands, but now’s the right time for us to step back.”

Looking back on their long careers, Graham and Jo found a lot to be proud of, including the Forum’s 2011 refurbishment – when millions were invest in the venue to regenerate it with all-new modern facilities – and earlier just this year when it was named the UK’s best ice-rink outside London.

But the two agree on their proudest moments – saving lives.

In a story that made the front page of The Northern Echo on November 7, 2012, Graham remembers one of the two times the team made the difference between life and death: “It was a gentleman who had a heart-attack in the gym. We managed to get him back with the defibrillator and mouth-to-mouth, and when we got him to hospital, the nurses said that if we hadn’t done what we did, he’d be dead.

“We just felt on top of the world. We had people telling us that if they ever had a heart-attack, they hoped it was in our gym!”

“The training just kicked in,” added Jo, “and it’s makes you realise that all the training we’d done with Tees Active wasn’t for nothing. He came back in with his daughter to say thank you, and it just gave us so much pleasure to know we’d helped him.”

Billingham local Sean Percival-Scott Laheney, who has been visiting the Forum since childhood, said: “I’m going to miss Jo and Graham, they’ve been here since I used to come swimming with my school. I’ve never known the Forum without them.”

Leon Jones, Managing Director of Tees Active, said: “Jo and Graham are exactly the sort of people you want as part of your team. For forty years, they’ve passionately served their community and helped make Billingham Forum the outstanding facility it is.

“On behalf of everyone at Tees Active, I wish them all the best for the future, and hope they enjoy their well-deserved retirements.”

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