Royal award for former Hastings teacher aged 106 who raised more than £60,000 for charity during pandemic

Former Hastings school teacher Joan Willett has been awarded a British Empire Medal in the King’s first Birthday Honours List.

Joan, aged 106, touched the hearts of local people by walking more than 17 miles up and down a hill outside her care home, in Hastings Old Town during lockdown exercise breaks leading up to her 104th birthday.

The Old Hastings House resident, who is a double heart attack survivor, took on the challenge to raise more than £60,000 for the British Heart Foundation.

The award comes just weeks before she celebrates her 107th birthday. Joan survived her second heart attack at 82 thanks to lifesaving bypass surgery and a heart valve replacement. She was already taking daily exercise on the steep hill next to the care home and after watching Captain Tom on TV during the pandemic she was inspired to use the walk to help fund the heart research she says enabled her to reach 100 and beyond.

Commenting on her award Joan said: “When I got the letter from the cabinet office informing me that I was being recommended to King Charles for this honour I literally couldn’t believe it. It was such a wonderful surprise and something that I could never have imagined would happen to me. But I’ve had to keep it a secret for a while until it was officially announced and couldn’t tell anyone, so that was difficult.

"I feel so very honoured and flattered, but I don’t think I have done anything special. I couldn’t have embarked on my fundraising challenge for the BHF without the support and encouragement of my friends and every single one of the wonderful staff here at my care home, they are all fantastic. So, I consider that this great honour is for all of them too, because without them, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Talking about her fund raising challenge, Joan said: “During the pandemic I was inspired by watching Captain Tom to do my walk for the British Heart Foundation because thanks to their research I have been able to reach the age I am and still enjoy life. I’m also so grateful that I came to live at my care home after my second heart attack, because the staff are wonderful and have made sure that I keep my independence which is so important to me. My friend and carer here, Pauline, supported me all the way throughout. When I came to live here over 20 years ago after my second heart attack, did I ever thing that largely thanks to her I would be getting an honour from the King.

"The best thing about all this – apart from raising the money to help others – was seeing how kind people have been, particularly friends and strangers from as far away as Australia and Canada, who supported me and donated. You only hear about the bad things in the world, but this has given me great faith in humanity.”

In April Joan was awarded a prestigious Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award in recognition of her fundraising for the BHF and got a special mention from Rishi Sunak during Prime Ministers Question Time.

She’s even had the hill she climbed during her epic fundraiser named after her – Willett Way. And inspired by her favourite motto: “Move it or lose it”, she still walks daily, to retain her independence – accompanied by a seagull she calls Bertie.

Pauline Glenet, Joan’s friend and the activity organiser at her care home said: “It has been a great honour working with Joan. She is a great inspiration and resident ambassador for our wonderful care home. Joan truly deserves this recognition from the King. We are all so very proud to be part of her incredible journey”.

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation said: “Joan is just such an exceptional person and her incredible fundraising for the BHF during the pandemic touched all of our hearts. It's just wonderful to see her recognised in the King’s Birthday Honours list.

“Having been a heart patient herself Joan knows just how important research is, and the £60,000 she raised will fund more research to help countless others live long and fulfilling lives – just like her. Everyone in our BHF family is immensely proud of Joan and we are thrilled she has received this national honour.”