HRH The Countess of Wessex GCVO has spoken about her pride for the “incredibly special” Foundation of Light in a video call to mark the start of the Foundation of Light’s 20th birthday celebrations.

Hosted by Sky Sports presenter and Sunderland AFC board member Dave Jones, The Countess was joined by the Foundation’s Chair of Trustees, Sir Bob Murray CBE, Chief Executive Lesley Spuhler OBE DL and Sunderland AFC Ladies Captain Keira Ramshaw.

The event marks the start of a year of celebrations by Sunderland AFC’s official charity, which uses the power of football to support tens of thousands of people across the North East to live happier and healthier lives.

Since its inception as a charity in 2001, the Foundation has grown from a handful of staff to become one of the biggest football charities in the country employing over 100 staff, with over 170 volunteers and its very own state-of-the-art sports and education facility, the Beacon of Light.

Thanks to donors, corporate partners and community fundraising, the Foundation reinvests millions back into Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham communities each year through delivery of over 40 sport, employability, health and wellbeing and education programmes, tackling some of the regions’ biggest societal challenges such as obesity, poor mental health, unemployment and anti-social behaviour.

Talking about her long-running support for the charity, which began back in 2004, HRH The Countess of Wessex said: “I couldn’t be more proud to be Patron. I’ve been really lucky to see the whole thing changing and developing – and fulfilling so many people’s dreams.”

Reflecting on the charity’s work, The Countess said: “On behalf of all the people who come through the doors of the Foundation of Light, thank you so much for everything that you’re doing.

“I know that it’s not easy at the moment, but I’m sure there will be some positive takeaways that you can utilise in the future.

“The Foundation is always flexible to the needs of the community and that is what makes it incredibly special, and already you are picking up on issues that are current and right now.

“I know the Foundation will always be there for the community and for those needs.”

Foundation of Light Chairman, Sir Bob Murray CBE, who founded the charity in 2001, spoke passionately about its growth and its life-changing impact on the local community.

Reflecting on the opening of the Beacon of Light, Sir Bob said: “That was a special day in my life.

“Big prizes don’t come easy and that was a big prize. It’s such a unique building and charity, [and it is] on such a vast scale.

“It [the Beacon] was ten years in the making and now it offers 7,000 people a week a beacon of hope.

“I’m more excited about the future – we haven’t really got going since we got in there because of what the world is going through but we’re looking to the future under Lesley’s leadership.

“We have a stunning team there now. They are very special people. They are driven. They are focused and they are beautiful human beings.

“It’s an honour to just know them, never mind to work with them. The future for me is very exciting.”

Also joining the call was Sunderland AFC Ladies captain Keira Ramshaw, who herself has benefitted from the Foundation from a young age and attributes much of her success to the support she has received from the charity.

Ramshaw, who was spotted by the Foundation at the age of 7 said: “They’ve immensely helped me in my career, whether it’s been on the pitch or off the pitch.

“They’ve helped with my teamwork skills and confidence. The Foundation has helped to provide me with a building block of how to conduct myself in and out of sport.

“I now work as a teaching assistant. I done [sic] my work experience in 2010 in the Foundation of Light and it opened my eyes as to how amazing they are going into schools…and giving children the opportunity.

“The work experience gave me so many skills and it actually made me want to go onto the pathway to work in a school and help children.

“So, I’ve got the Foundation to thank not only for my football and where I am now, but also for work qualities as well.”

Alongside Keira, was nine-year-old Josie Dobson from Jarrow, a talented young footballer, who is currently part of the Foundation’s Regional Talent Club – a talent pathway for Sunderland AFC Ladies which has previously produced players such as England captain Steph Houghton and her fellow World Cup stars Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott.

The Countess also chatted to husband-and-wife team Neil and Melanie Jones from County Durham; Foundation of Light Skills Tutors who, before working for the Foundation, took part on the charity’s Back in the Game employability programme before going on to volunteer and eventually secure roles within the charity.

Also joining the call was Rosalind Copeland from Southwick, Sunderland who is currently a participant on the EFL Trust’s Tackling Loneliness Together programme, which has seen the Foundation support nearly 1,500 older people with free telephone befriending, care packages and online activities to keep them physically and mentally healthy in their homes.

The call was the first in a series of special events to mark the start of a year of celebrations.

Later this evening, landmarks across Sunderland including Penshaw Monument, Northern Spire, Keel Square, Fulwell Mill and Seaburn Lighthouse will join the charity’s home, the Beacon of Light, in shining red and white to mark the special day.

To find out more about the Foundation of Light and to share your support visit www.foundationoflight.co.uk

To make the very special year, the charity is aiming to raise £50,000 to support hundreds of people across Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham access life-changing employability and mental health projects.

To show your support and donate today visit www.justgiving.com/campaign/FoL20

Follow all of the activities via our social channels using #FoL20