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County Mayo’s rural communities are not unlike many areas in other parts of the world, many of them left behind in an increasingly global, interconnected world. But one woman is out to change all of that by galvanizing residents from 18 farming localities and helping them take responsibility for their own future through leadership training, capacity building and self-development.
 
Sr. Maureen Lally, a native of Islandeady, is the face behind the Tochar Valley Rural Community Network (TVRCN), a unique grassroots initiative that the County Mayo Foundation has partnered with.
 
The Network seeks to empower residents to turn their rural villages and townlands into hubs of sustainability, which includes the creation of new microenterprises that encourage local people, including farmers, to utilize their land for the production of home-grown products.
 
Those products include organic vegetables, fruit, honey, cheese, butter, eggs from free-range poultry, as well as a variety of homemade bread and confections, in addition to handmade crafts.
 
Her overall objective in creating the Network is to build the self-confidence, skill base and leadership abilities of the area’s “business people in the making” and in many ways, this initiative fulfills Sr. Maureen’s lifelong vision of revitalizing rural Mayo.
 
“During the formative years of my life, I had a dream that one day, if I was lucky, I might be able to help the rural people of County Mayo grow in greater self-belief, gain greater self-confidence and eventually gain a stronger voice to articulate their real needs,” said the 80-year-old community organizer, who served as a grade school teacher in Jefferson City, Mo., in the early 1960s.
 
Her community service has included 30 years as a socio-economic advisor with Teagasc, an Irish semi-state body devoted to research and development in the agri-food sector. For 10 years, she was an Irish delegate on a working party for women and development in agriculture initiative under the umbrella of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations.
 
As a trainer of trainers, she worked with groups from Austria, Armenia, Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Estonia, Hungry, Iceland, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
 
During this time, Co Mayo was host to delegates of the International Working Party and development groups on experiential learning programs, which were coordinated by Sr. Maureen.
 
The TVRCN includes representatives from many communities in southwest Mayo who are raising awareness of issues related to poverty, disadvantage and inequality. Their work is based on a Community Futures program plan, which aims to encourage active citizenship and build local democracy.
 
The Network brought it to the attention of the Mayo County Council in 2006, and it has been the primary community action planning model across the entire county as a result. Its success depends on the results of household surveys, interviews with local businesses, schools and others, the preparation of a community profile, and holding regular Community Futures workshops.
 
“This is an alternative model that values the contribution of each and every individual in the community,” Sr. Maureen noted. “It gives a real voice to many whose voice had never previously been heard.”
 
“Because of our bottom-up approach to community development, we believe that this community leadership program, for which we seek funding, will further our goal to support sustainable community development going forward. It is our goal to also create income-generating opportunities to help supplement the local rural economy,” explained Sr. Maureen.
 
One example of that sustainable development is the award-winning Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail as an immersive travel experience and as an example of authentic rural tourism. The National Waymarked Trail links each of the Network’s communities, beginning in Knock and ending in Murrisk at the foot of Croagh Patrick.
 
Enjoying the region’s naturally produced fare, its accommodation and its recreational facilities, as well as encouraging tourists to learn about the history and heritage of the area, are all part of the Network’s efforts to boost rural tourism in this part of Mayo and as a result, to create much-needed income for the area.
 
“Over the years, I have gained fantastic experience and insight into identifying what are the essential building blocks of community development and rural vitalization,” Sr. Maureen said.
 
“I have also learned that people must be at the hub of their own community building, which means that much time and energy must be invested in training and empowering the people.”
 
Donations to the Tochar Valley Rural Community Network can be made through the County Mayo Foundation website at https://countymayofoundation.org/tocharvalleycommunityleadershipprogram/. All donations made in the U.S. for this worthy cause are tax deductible.

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