Tommy Wilson grew up on the Donegall Road in the Village area of Belfast. “We had nowhere to go, we had to run the streets. The place where I lived was just housing and there were no green spots whatsoever to play games on. At that time, you were getting into problems with neighbours and the police, you just didn’t have anywhere to enjoy yourself.”

Tommy was aware of the Troubles from the very beginning. “There were troubles on the streets like stone throwing. It gradually got worse, crowds gathering and hijacking and burning.  No matter where we went you actually had the feel of tension in the district and you knew something was going to erupt.”

It was the lack of community activities and centres for leisure in his local area, which motivated Tommy into community work. “With the Troubles starting to come onto the streets, we knew that we needed to do something in the area …to occupy our youth and our senior citizens too because they suffered. “

Tommy began local community work with the mothers in his district. “I started getting involved when I was 14 years old. We decided what we should do was go round doors, collecting money to see if we could buy a building in the area and that’s how I got involved with that. There was a lot of support to try and get the kids off the street. People could see the damage being done in the area.”

Tommy felt that politicians failed to adequately support the community. “Politicians didn’t exist for us at a young age. Once they got voted in that was it, we never were in touch with anybody like that.”

Tommy helped to develop the Empire Community Centre.  He was 17 years old. “It was a young age to take on something which I’d never done in my life. We got in touch with a Minister from London. It was Direct Rule then. He came to the Centre and put me in touch with the Belfast Action Team. They thought it was an excellent idea. We got professional backing and then the committee and we started the Empire Community Centre.”

In spite of enduring money problems and issues with the poor structure of the building, Tommy was driven to make the project successful. “I decided I didn’t want to see anybody going through what I actually went through. I used a lot of my own money to pay the bills, I was determined that if I took a fight on, I was going to win. The reward at the end of it was to see the Centre as it is today.”

“Today, everybody in the Centre everybody works voluntarily, we do not get paid, we love it. We look after senior citizens, the children and the youth. We also have after school clubs. Whenever a youth gets into trouble with the law, I will go and speak on their behalf and try and put them on the right road.”

Tommy’s work with the community also saw him become involved in campaigns for better housing, “People are entitled to live in a decent home and a decent community. I’m the chairman of the Village Focus Housing Group and it’s very demanding, it’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve taken on.”

During the height of the Troubles Tommy engaged with the police and the army in an attempt to resolve issues of violence within the community. “I was there to speak on behalf of my community. I was there to try and say to the police and the army, ‘Look we need to sit down and talk. We can’t keep on standing shooting rubber bullets, throwing bricks, bottles and burning vehicles.’ I could’ve been lifted at anytime; I could’ve been shot or stoned at anytime but people in my area knew I was there for one thing only, to try and calm the situation down. If you compare today and 30 years ago you can see the difference. There’s talking going on now, negotiating is going on.”

Tommy was awarded an MBE. “It was a shock. When the letter came to my house about the MBE, I thought it was a set up. The good thing about it was, I came back and told the people of the area that this actual award was an MBE for senior citizens and it was for them. It was only me being nominated for it,  at the end of the day that was their medal.”

Reflecting on this life, he says, “You say to yourself there’s 30-40 years of real hard graft. You can see your results, you have your ups and downs, you fall out with people, you make new friends and you meet very important people. And you do sit and say to yourself that it’s worth it, I’ve done something for my community.”