All Posts By

Lori Lander Murphy

Food & Drink, People

A Garden Tea Party Fundraiser and a Community Coming Together

Tiernagh & Mia Moore and Meagan & Jenna Diver with Their Cards for Caolan & Conall

Tiernagh & Mia Moore and Meagan & Jenna Diver with their cards for Caolan & Conall

“It’s overwhelming how people just come together in situations like this. Situations that you don’t even think about before they happen.”

These are the words of Fidelma McGroary, and she knows what she’s talking about. Fidelma is one of five Delaware County women who organized last Sunday’s Garden Tea Party to raise money for two strong little boys who are fighting cancer.

Caolan Melaugh, the cousin of Fidelma’s sister-in-law in County Donegal, was diagnosed at four weeks with Neuroblastoma. Now four months old, Caolan is undergoing an 18 month protocol in Ireland to treat his cancer, but the best chance for a successful cure would mean treatment in either the U.S. or Europe. An expensive undertaking, the Caolan Melaugh Fund has been established online, and half of the money raised at Sunday’s Tea Party will be donated to Caolan.

Conall Harvey is much closer to home. The five year old, whose family is part of St. Denis Parish in Havertown and whose great-grandmother was the late Rosabelle Gifford, was diagnosed in March of this year with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.  The Leukemia was discovered when Conall was admitted to the ER with what his parents thought was dehydration from a stomach virus.  But instead of a stomach virus, Conall’s body had gone into septic shock from a bacterial infection that his immune system was too weak to fight off. Doctors amputated both Conall’s legs at the knee and part of his hand to save his life; the other half of the money raised Sunday will go directly to Conall’s family as he undergoes chemotherapy and rehabilitation.

“These are two special little boys,” Fidelma said. “And we decided we weren’t going to let another day go by without doing something to help them. We’ve been talking about giving back and paying it forward for years. I wanted to do something for Caolan, and then we heard about Conall. That’s how it started.

“This could not have happened without Louise Moore, Sharon Doogan, Kathy McGuinness and Colette Gallagher-Mohan. And the people who donated raffle baskets and food and their time. Everybody lifted the phone and said ‘What can I bring?’ And then the word started to spread, that’s the people of the Irish Community.”

Another group that was instrumental in making the Garden Tea Party so successful was their children. “They did all the decor. They did everything, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Fidelma said. “It was important that the kids were a part of this. I wanted them to grow up realizing how blessed they are and to learn to give back. So when they grow up and we’re old and gone, they’ll carry on.”

The special guest of the day was Mairead Comaskey, the Philadelphia Rose of Tralee. Beautiful and gracious, Mairead could usually be found with a trail of young girls in her wake. In addition to judging the best-dressed contests, she happily posed for pictures and shared her sash and crown with the crowd. In a few weeks, Mairead is off to Tralee for the International Rose Pageant, but on Sunday her heart was with Caolan and Conall.

At the time of the fundraiser, Conall Harvey was still recovering at CHOP, but his aunt, Rose Harvey Kurtz, was at the event. “Conall is just a beautiful bright light, a beautiful spirit,” she said. “He’s a fighter. His school dedicated a day to him, and the motto was ‘Conall Strong.’ We do down to visit him to brighten his day, and instead he brightens ours.

“The outpouring of love and faith is keeping us going. There’s something about Conall’s spirit that is bringing out the love and goodness in people. People’s faith is coming back. The positive thing is the strength of the family and friends who are so supportive, and the beautiful people who do beautiful things like this. It’s overwhelming how good people are.”

You can see all the photos from the Garden Tea Party below.

News

Kathy McGee Burns: The Story of All Our Irish Families in Philadelphia

We’re still not quite finished with this year’s St. Patrick’s Day experience in Philadelphia.

We’ve had many requests for the speech that Kathy McGee Burns, President of the Irish Memorial and Grand Marshal of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, gave at The Memorial (located at Front and Chestnut Streets) on March 17th. So here is the video, and the transcript, of her eloquent expression of not only the story of her Irish family’s experience, but the experience of so many who left their homeland for a better life. And found it.

Kathys speech

 

ST. PATRICK’S DAY SPEECH AT THE IRISH MEMORIAL, BY KATHY MCGEE BURNS, MARCH 17, 2015

“Good afternoon. As you know, I’m Kathy McGee Burns, President of the Irish Memorial, and I’m grateful to be giving this speech because as we all gaze upon this beautiful monument, it tells a story. The story I’m going to tell you is of my family; but it could be any one of your families.  That monument depicts many aspects of the Irish.

My great-great grandparents, Cornelius and Kate McGee had six children. Four of them were forced out of Ireland. They all lived in Gweedore, County Donegal, and the McGees were tenants on their own land, forced to pay high rents. That is because the landlord really wanted the land for the grazing of his high-bred English and Scottish lambs and sheep. We were in the way. They thought more of their sheep than our people. So their son, Thomas McGee, got on one of those ships and headed to the Port of Philadelphia. His people were miners and railroaders and servants, but the result of their tenacity and their Irish spirit is part of the fiber of Philadelphia.

They were the builders of St. Malachy’s in North Philadelphia. That’s where Irish children were educated by the Sisters of Mercy. One of those children was my grandmother, Mary Josephine Callahan. Religion was one of the stepping stones to Irish success in Philadelphia; through the nuns and priests who educated us, to the bishops and the cardinals and the parish system which was a powerful builder of Irish success.

Well, Mary Jo and her husband Hugh McGee had a son, Timothy, my father. He was brought up in Swampoodle and I bet if I took a chance, many of you here were from Swampoodle. He graduated from Roman Catholic High School, went to work for the ‘Ac-a-me’ and then started his own business. He was highly successful.

The Irish built these cities through their unions, their bricklayers, their builders, their electricians, the operating engineers, the McCloskeys and the Kellys.

Tim McGee, my father, had four children. He made sure we were educated. Each one of us have graduate degrees. And I am proudly married to an operating engineer. The Irish have gained power by their involvement in the law. They were firemen, policemen, attorneys, politicians and judges. Well, the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius McGee is none other than my own daughter, the Honorable Kelly Wall, who became a judge.

So this is what The Irish Memorial is to all of us, given an opportunity in this world, this city.  It represents the hardships, the ‘Irish Need Not Applies,’ the many avenues of Irish Philadelphia education—Villanova, St. Joe’s, my own school, Chestnut Hill College. It represents Boathouse Row and the lighting of Philadelphia by the electricians’ union. So we owe our love and respect to our ancestors, and a huge thank you to those who conceived the plan and raised the money and built what is known as the most beautiful monument in the world to honor ‘An Gorta Mor.’

And I salute my ancestors. Thank you”

 

 

 

News

The Henry Girls Bring Inishowen to Philly

Henry girls

Denise has seen the sisters play in Inishowen, I’ve seen one of the sisters (Jolene) play in Buncrana; of course we were going to see the Henry Girls play when they came to us (although, frankly, we’d both rather be in Donegal seeing them play). So last Friday, when Karen, Lorna and Jolene performed at Burlap and Bean, in Newtown Square, along with musician Ry Cavanaugh, we were there.  Denise got a few photos, I got a few videos (the atmosphere was small, intimate and dark, so the visual quality isn’t that great; just listen to their magical, musical harmonies). And when they closed the evening with their a cappella version of “The Parting Glass,” they did indeed bring joy to us all.

The Henry Girls have three CDs they’ve recorded: “Dawn,” “December Moon,” and “Louder Than Words.” All three are unique, yet showcase the rare and particular unison in which the sisters play and sing.

Their recordings are available for purchase through their website, The Henry Girls, as well as for download on iTunes.

So, check out their music, and then add it to your collection; it’s music you’ll want to listen to on repeat.

“Sing My Sister Down”

“James Monroe”

“Watching the Detectives”

 

Food & Drink, News, People

The Brehons Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at Tir na nOg

Patrick Murphy with Siobhan Sean Stevens

How do the judges, lawyers, law students (and their friends!) of Irish descent rejoice in the St. Patrick’s Day season in Philly? They gather their members of The Brehon Law Society together, get John Byrne & Maura Dwyer of The John Byrne Band to play some music and they meet at Tir na nOG in the city on March 11th. With a great turnout, and the food & drink superb, the craic was mighty.

And, with guests like Patrick Murphy, the former Pennsylvania Congressman and current host of MSNBC’s monthly program “Taking the Hill” (which is airing this Sunday, March 22, at 1PM Eastern Time), in attendance, you can always count on The Brehons to throw an exceptional shindig!

Check out our photos from the evening, and see who else showed up for the party.

Music, News, Religion

Caitriona O’Leary Brings “The Wexford Carols” to a New Audience in All Their Original Glory

Caitriona O'Leary's Enthralling Arrangement of The Wexford Carols

Caitriona O’Leary’s Enthralling Arrangement of The Wexford Carols

Christmas music evokes the spirit and sublime essence of the season, and Caitriona O’Leary has captured all that is meaningful about the Yuletide in her new CD, “The Wexford Carols,” by restoring original tunes to the 17th century poems and singing them in her glorious voice.

Caitriona, the Donegal born singer known for her ethereal voice and for her group DULRA, became captivated by The Wexford Carols 25 years ago when she first heard Noirin Ni Riain singing them on her album, “The Darkest Midnight.” The story behind the carols is part of Ireland’s dark history:  Written as poems in 1684 by Luke Waddinge, Bishop of Ferns, County Wexford, they were published in “A Smale Garland of Pious & Godly Songs.” They were an expression of the politics of the time, and specifically Oliver Cromwell’s 1649 Sack of Wexford, which left the Irish Catholic gentry disenfranchised.  The people found solace in this poetry, and began singing them to popular melodies of the era. In 1728, Father William Devereux composed his own version of the carols, titled “A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas.” There were originally 22 songs, but only 12 are still sung annually in Wexford as part of the 12 days of Christmas. They were passed down as all traditional Irish songs have been—from “mouth to ear to mouth, through the generations.”

“Indeed, it is fascinating how songs are kept alive like that,” Caitriona said. “And how they develop and change, even if only tiny bit by tiny bit over the centuries. You can sometimes see this in songs that have been passed down orally in other regions—they may have started off the same but through the inevitable personal nuances of different singers end up quite different indeed. Look at how ‘Barbara Allen’ is sung in England versus Appalachia versus how it was written down in 18th century Scotland!”

Caitriona’s captivation with the carols led to her 25 year journey researching the history, and then thoroughly and meticulously recreating the original melodies to the songs.

“I listened to recordings of the traditional carolers in Kilmore (as well as hearing them live) and I read every scrap of history I could find. I was very fortunate to be able to hold in my hands and peruse an original 1728 edition of Waddinge’s ‘Garland’ (the second edition) in The National Library (Ireland) and had access to the treasure trove that is the Irish Traditional Music Archives,” Caitriona explained.

Some tunes were easier than others to restore to the poems.

“In the case of ‘An Angel This Night’ it wasn’t so hard at all; Waddinge intended for all of his poems to be sung and beneath the title of each is the instruction ‘To the tune of…’ In this case the tune in question was ‘Neen Major Neel.’ While the tune with that title is no longer known, two other Waddinge poems (‘On St. Stephen’s Day’ and ‘Song of the Circumcision, New Year’s Day’) are also to be sung to ‘Neen Major Neel’ and are both still sung traditionally. I have made the assumption that this is the original tune. In other cases, the prescribed tunes have been a little harder to hunt down. But by trawling through old ballad books and dance books from the 17th and 18th centuries, I did find some that I think are right. Like, for example, ‘This is Our Christmass Day’ which is supposed to be sung to the tune of ‘Bonny-brooe.’ I reckon that Waddinge probably meant ‘The Bonny Broom,’ a popular 17th century Scottish song.

“I really love these texts, the wonderful contrast between the humble and the lavish expressed in fabulously rich, yet accessible language. The tunes are beautiful, too, and the fact that so much of the tradition has been kept alive by the folk is really wonderful. Apart from ‘The Ennisworthy Carol’ (which is quite well known, generally by the name ‘The Wexford Carol’), these songs are almost unknown outside the parish in which they are still sung. And there is not a huge amount of traditional Irish Christmas music in the general repertoire. That fact also made these songs all the more precious to me. Also, I lived in New York for many years, and while there Irish culture took on a whole new meaning for me. Sometimes it takes exile to strengthen ties (the old ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’)!”

And how did her three co-vocalists come to be involved in the project?

“The producer of this record, the lovely Joe Henry, suggested Tom Jones and Rosanne Cash and also Rhiannon Giddens—whose star is rising very fast; she is a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and the New Basement Tapes (a ‘supergroup’ that also includes Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford). He had worked with all three in the past and thought they would be a good fit for the project—I think he was right! These three singers, along with the band of brilliant players, gathered in a circle around Joe and me in a former stable (that is now the Grouse Lodge Recording Studio) and gave their individual and collective artistic responses to the tunes as I sang them, and together we made this beautiful music.”

Beautiful. Stunning. Sublime. It takes more than one adjective to describe “The Wexford Carols.”

Watch the video of “The Angell Said to Joseph Mild:”

Visit Caitriona O’Leary’s website, where you can order the CD.

 

Dance, Food & Drink, People

A Holly, Jolly Christmas with The Rose of Tralee

Maria Walsh and Santa crack each other up.

Maria Walsh and Santa crack each other up.

When the Philadelphia Rose Centre was established in 2002, in order to give “young Irish American women from the Philadelphia region the chance to participate in one of Ireland’s most beloved traditions,” little did they know that in 2014 they would see one of their own become the International Rose. 

So this year’s Christmas party was an extra special holiday celebration. With Maria Walsh and Santa (who sometimes goes by the name Seamus Bonner) in attendance, the Saturday Club in Wayne was rocking the season’s spirit last Sunday. There was food, music provided by Karen Boyce McCollum and the Lads (Pat Close and Pat Kildea), dancing, face painting, crafts, raffles, Newbridge jewelry for sale by Kathleen Regan and just a whole lot of fun.

The Conaghan family—Tom, Mary and daughters Sarah, Mary and Karen Conaghan Race—are the driving force behind the phenomenal success of the Philadelphia Rose program, and are supported by a devoted committee (Margaret King, Beth Keeley and Elizabeth Spellman) and volunteers who work throughout the year to bring events and activities to the Rose community.

She’s already traveled all over the world as the 2014 Rose, but on Sunday, Maria belonged to Philadelphia. She posed for pictures, danced and made the room come alive. And as she thanked everyone for attending the party, especially those with young kids, she noted “If we didn’t have young rosebuds, petals, future escorts, we wouldn’t have a future. And it’s so important that parents and teachers and aunts and uncles and grandparents bring kids here. This is how the Irish have survived for so long—we always re-invest and keep the cycle sustainable and going.”

Go ahead and enjoy the photos from the day:

 

Watch the video created by Mary Conaghan:

To follow Maria’s journey as International Rose, follow her on the Maria Walsh 2014 International Rose of Tralee Facebook page

And for more information on the Philly Rose Centre, check out their website: Philadelphia Rose of Tralee

News, People

“American First, Irish Always:” The Story Behind CelticClothing.com

Janice Pietrowicz and Charlie Lord, Owners of CelticClothing.com

Janice Pietrowicz and Charlie Lord, owners of CelticClothing.com, in their Chaddsford home, in front of a painting of The Odessa, a ship that carried Irish immigrants from Queenstown, Cork to America in the 1800’s.

Spend an afternoon with Charlie Lord and Janice Pietrowicz, owners of CelticClothing.com, and it doesn’t take long to see why their online business has not only succeeded over the past 20 years, but is now flourishing. And there is no end to the possibilities for their future growth.

For starters there is their company motto, “American First, Irish Always,” which they have trademarked into one of their most popular selling t-shirts.

But more than that is the hard work and dedication that the Belfast born Charlie put into building his own American  dream. He wanted to bring quality Irish products to the United States, and from the beginning knew nothing was going to  stop him.

After having spent some time in Boston in the late 1980’s, Charlie decided to pursue a degree in Business Studies at Derby University in England. As part of his program, he had to come up with a plan for starting a business. He directly created his own future.

When he returned to the United States through the Donnelly Visa program in the early 90’s, finding a job as an immigrant wasn’t easy. “I came back to America with a business degree and a green card. I had been in Boston initially, and a couple of the guys who were up there said they were going to Wildwood, NJ, and I thought I was going to stay in Boston on my own and try and play on a soccer team. But the guys were leaving, so I really thought about it and decided to go with them for the summer in Wildwood—one of my friends had been there before and said ‘All right, lads, there’s plenty of work in Wildwood, it’s the beach and it’s summertime.’ And we get there and I got a job for $5 an hour chopping potatoes through this big thing for the french fry machine.”

At summer’s end, Charlie headed to Philadelphia, the nearest big city, where he met Janice and decided it was time to put his business plan into action. As an immigrant with a green card, it wasn’t easy to get a loan. “Banks weren’t interested,” Janice explained. “So I co-signed a loan for him, not a big one, just enough to buy an old van, his first round of t-shirts, some tables and entry into an Irish event. Within two weeks he had the loan paid off.”

“If you want to do something, you’ll get it done,” Charlie added.

And it was Charlie’s idea to make it an online venture, even in the early days when the internet was in its infancy. “We started when mail order was definitely still the thing. So it would always be a kick, we’d be eating dinner and get an online order and go fill it,” Janice said. At that time, their warehouse was their garage.

“It just continued to get bigger and bigger, and the more I adapted to the internet, it was like turning a ship. We made a conscious decision some years ago that we were going to turn things into an e-commerce company primarily. In those early days, people kept throwing money at internet companies, but we just kept going along. So when there was a big implosion, we got through the smoke. We were still going and still going, and we’re still there. Visitors to the site are up 32% from November 2013 to November of 2014. That’s 33,000 visitors to CelticClothing.com,” Charlie explained.

In the meantime, Charlie got a Masters Degree in Business Education from Temple University and began teaching Web Design and Internet Marketing at Haverford High School, where he is now also Department Chair of the Business Faculty. Janice has always worked as a school psychologist for the past 25 years. And they had two children. Oh, and they still travel during the summer to all the big festivals, using at least a 10 x 20 truck to haul their inventory to the shows, and bringing a staff of workers with them.

And the business finally outgrew their garage. About three years ago, they rented a warehouse in Toughkenamon in Chester County and hired staff to answer phones and fill orders. Danna and Maggie are the two women who keep things going so Charlie and Janice can focus on expanding the business. “For years, it was clothing and caps,” Janice said. “Since then we’ve gotten into glassware, scarves, perfumes, jewelry, some food products. We have wine corks—they’re great for hostess gifts. We’ve added children’s clothes. And we have Aran sweaters, plus a lot of different designs of men’s flat caps. We started carrying the women’s caps this year, which are great—Downton Abbey style hats. And they look so nice on women. Sometimes a woman will say, ‘I’m not a hat person’ and I tell them to try it on. The purple one in particular looks good on everyone; it brings everybody’s eyes out. We also carry food items, from Barry’s Tea to Guinness Chocolate Truffle cups. Charlie makes sure we order the candies he likes,” Janice laughed. “That way, if they don’t sell, he can bring them home. But every Christmas we’ll do a breakfast basket and that is a really cool thing. It has Irish sausage, bacon, O’Hara’s Soda Bread, the puddings, the whole deal. It comes frozen and stays insulated.”

In order to find new products, Janice explained, they go to different trade shows, and to Ireland once a year “to see if there are any unique products. We have some people we’ve been dealing with for years. All our stuff is either bought from Irish companies or local based American companies. All our hats and sweaters, they’re made in Ireland. There aren’t many manufacturers still doing it, but it’s the old-timers, the families, people who have had them for generations are still doing them. With that the costs are higher, but you can’t beat the quality.

“Everything we buy is licensed from the company. All the t-shirts are good quality. We have a 100% return policy. And we have the girls here if you need to call us. Some people still don’t like to order online. Sometimes people want an opinion—‘which one do you like better?’ They may have seen it online, or they may have seen it at an event. We’re always adding new designs, we have a lot of new t-shirts. There’s really something for everybody. Every shirt has a life expectancy, so we keep them in and then try to come up with some new designs, whether they’re our own or somebody else’s. If you don’t come up with your own designs, you basically have what everyone else has. And we don’t carry anything derogatory—none of the drunken stuff. We really want to portray ourselves as a quality product company. We’ve got something for all ages, and we also do gift certificates online—that’s helpful because sometimes you’ve got last minute shoppers who don’t know quite what to get or what size someone is.

“Our customers are really faithful. They’ll come up to us at the shows and remember what they’ve gotten, and say ‘Oh, that’s a new one.’

“Customer service is very important to us. We send coupons with every order so the customer will get a discount the next time they buy something from the website. If you’re unhappy with something or something doesn’t fit the way you want, you just return it. It’s not a big deal. If there’s an issue, if we’re out of a particular size, the customer can call and we can say, ‘Do you want to wait a week for our next shipment, or do you want to try a similar style?’ It gives them an option what to do. We’ve definitely gotten bigger, but I still like keeping it small. I like keeping the personal touch and the personal sense. I just really want that customer to be a happy person. That’s important to us. Our customers are faithful, good people; they come from all over the country.

“And we like having the business where it is, because we support the local business community. We use the little post office around the corner; today we shipped 350 orders through them. We hire local girls who work for us, and we pay benefits to our full-time employees.”

And all the time, Charlie has his eye focused on the future and where online commerce is heading. “We have an extensive digital footprint. We have over 30,000 fans on Facebook, we’re on Pinterest, we’re on Twitter. We engage in email marketing, we have our website, we sell on other platforms. We explore Amazon, we explore eBay—we have stores on those sites. Amazon is the benchmark of e-commerce; so many people use it, you kind of have to be there. Any of these places, like Facebook, it comes back into what I teach and do everyday. If you’ve got all of those people on Facebook, you’ve got to have a presence there. You’ve got all these internet communities, you have to have some kind of presence.

“On the downside of all that, it’s very time-consuming. You have to think about the time concern and the return on the investment. For any small business, you survive on the sales and revenue that come in. That’s the bottom line. Whatever activities you’re doing, you have to see a return on them. You have to see money coming in. Otherwise, you’re not going to be in business very long. You have to pay staff, you have to pay electric bills, and rent, and hosting and festival fees. The money for that comes from sales. But social media is a form of advertising, and unless you have an advertising budget, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got 500 fans or 5,000 fans.”

I asked Charlie if he were to come to the U.S. now, as a young man, if he thought he’d be able to accomplish all that he has in the past 20 years. His answer was “Yes” with a but:  “The problem for the Irish kids who are leaving the Island now is that they can’t get into the United States. They’re going to Australia. And that’s a missed opportunity for both the young Irish people and for the Americans because you have a highly educated workforce that can’t get into the U.S. They’re willing to work and they want to work, but the immigration laws don’t let them in. So, Australia will benefit.

“It’s not a coincidence that Celtic Clothing is owned by an Irishman. It’s just something that when I came over at first, and I created my own job and I’m working in the Irish community, with the Irish people, it still gave me that connection with home. That was a big part of it because for me it was that cultural kind of need. Back then, you would have lots of Irish immigrants in Upper Darby and the Northeast. They’d come to Wildwood and then meet their cousins in the city. And there was a community. And that’s done now, that’s gone. Those people cannot get in anymore. It’s unfortunate because businesses grew up from that, but there’s no new Irish immigrants coming in anymore to keep these things alive and start these things up.

“At the heart of it, you have to love the business you create. You have to be enthusiastic, it has to be something you enjoy because in any business, that has to be there. You have to be answering the phone from Ireland in the middle of a conversation in the kitchen. Otherwise, it’s going to be too much like work, and you’re not going to want to do it.”

According to Janice, “There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by in 20 years where the words ‘Celtic Clothing’ have not come up in a conversation at our house.”

But at the end of the day, Charlie said, “What’s most important to Janice and me with our own kids is to make them aware of their family back in Ireland, so the kids know that story and that history that came across the ocean. I want them to understand their family background.” And Janice added, “We both work hard, and we want to teach that to our kids. We don’t just give them everything.”

American First, Irish Always.

To receive a special 10% discount for Irish Philadelphia readers, go to CelticClothing.com and enter the coupon code “PHILLY” at the checkout.

Check out the photos from my behind-the-scenes tour of CelticClothing.com’s warehouse:

 

And to follow CelticClothing.com on social media, here are the links:

Twitter: CelticClothing.com on Twitter

Facebook: CelticClothing.com on Facebook

Pinterest: CelticClothing.com on Pinterest

Youtube:

 

News, People

Malala Yousafzai: Inspiring the Students at Mount Saint Joseph Academy

Jess Tyrrell, Colleen McBride & Katie Mars, three of The Mount for Malala

 

Last month, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person, at age 17, to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her devoted advocacy in her mission to ensure that all females around the world have the right to an education. Her story has become a rallying cry and she is known around the globe.  Born in Pakistan, her town was taken over by the Taliban, and the school founded by her father, Ziaudden Yousafzai, was threatened because girls were allowed to attend. Malala became targeted personally for her passionate stance, and was shot in the head in an assassination attempt as she rode the bus home from school. Not only did she survive the attack, but she has taken her fight against the Taliban’s position worldwide. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif commended her as the pride of Pakistan and encouraged: “Girls and boys of the world should take lead from her struggle and commitment.”

And that’s exactly what the girls at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, commonly referred to as “The Mount,” in Flourtown, PA, did. “You’re never going to hear a teacher here who tells you your ideas are too big. Nothing’s ever too big. And that’s just what you get in every single class…they say ‘I support you. Go for it,'” explained senior Jess Tyrrell.

So when the 16 students in the 20/20 club (an organization that’s committed to solving 20 global problems over a span of 20 years) at the all-female Catholic high school read Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban” last spring, it was the club’s advisor Kate Shevlin who encouraged the girls to reach out to Malala.

Colleen McBride, one of the members of the club, had just been elected student body president for the 2014-2015 school year. With the theme of “Bring a Whole New Spirit to the Mount” in mind, Colleen knew this was a big idea and she ran with it.

“Reading her book, and realizing that she was our own age, and that even though she’s across the world we can still connect to her, I knew there was something to this, that this is happening for a reason. Our mission at The Mount is ‘On the education of women largely lies the future of society,’ Colleen said. “Then we realized she was coming to Philadelphia and it became real, it became an attainable goal.

“We decided we wanted to ask Malala to come to The Mount, and when we found out she was going to be receiving the Liberty Medal here, we began brainstorming. Even though this was in June, we knew October 21st was going to be here before we knew it. We decided to make a video, and we spent the whole week of July 4th filming and putting it together.”

Katie Mars, another student in the group, came up with the video’s tag line, “Malala is…” and all the girls then took it from there.

“We were talking about it, and I went home and decided to write a reflection. I write poems and reflections when I have spare time and feel inspired, and it all just sort of happened,” Katie explained.

With the video finished and on YouTube, they began an ardent twitter campaign at https://twitter.com/mountformalala to get their message to Malala. “We tweeted directly to Malala, and everyday we would have a tweet dedicated to her—like a picture of her, or a quote, and then throughout the day we would post the video saying ‘We made this video for Malala, we stand in solidarity with her, education first.’ And then we would do small stuff; for her birthday, July 12th, I made her cupcakes that said ‘Mount for Malala’ on them and posted the photo, and that was the first favorite [on their twitter account] we got directly from her,” Colleen said.

“Eason Jordan, the director of operations and communications of the Malala Fund, he reached out to my account and the Mount for Malala account,” Colleen relayed. “First they said thank you for this inspirational video, so we knew they had actually seen the video. And then he tweeted to me and said, ‘Would you be able to have a phone chat tomorrow regarding Malala’s Philadelphia visit?’ so the next day I was sitting here in this room and Eason said ‘Malala and the Malala Fund are so impressed with your efforts.’ We had worked so hard, and it was a huge group effort and then to hear that they’re impressed—and they’re inspired by US–when we’re so inspired by THEM, it was just an incredible thing.”

Although due to time constraints and security issues, Malala wouldn’t be able to schedule a visit to The Mount, the 16 girls all got an invitation to attend the Liberty Medal Ceremony.

Colleen was further blown away when Eason told her, “Five girls will be onstage at the ceremony to read blogs and then greet Malala, and the Malala Fund has chosen you to be one of those girls.”

“That was such an honor for me,” Colleen said. “Because it wasn’t just for me. I was representing the whole school on that stage, and I wore my uniform. And I know Malala loves her uniform, so I was really proud to be up there representing The Mount. I sat right behind her onstage. We stood and greeted her, and that was the first time we made eye contact. I was just beaming and it was just an overwhelming experience. I read her excerpt about when the Taliban first came to her village, and the artillery fire she and her friend heard as they were doing their homework. They thought it was a normal day, and weren’t really focused on it. Then it talked about her blog, and how no one could know it was written by her.”

Although the other girls weren’t onstage, they did meet Malala as part of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit before the actual ceremony. As they waited for Malala to meet them, “the energy was just amazing,” Jess said. “The room went completely silent the second she walked in. I’m pretty sure everyone was just staring because she just walks in and she’s this larger than life figure.” Katie further described the moment, “She took the entire presence of the room, and everyone was focused on her. Though she’s very small in stature, she has such a big presence. And she’s just so humble as well. She’s accomplished so much but she just came in and shook hands with every single person in the room.”

“We met her dad as well,” Jess went on. “He’s much more talkative than she was. He said, ‘Yes, my daughter has this opportunity to go and spread her message, but it’s left to people like you to spread it around.’ He’s saying that every single girl is inspirational, and to hear that from someone whose daughter is the biggest inspiration in the world was so encouraging. He believes we can be like her without having the kind of situation she’s suffered. It just takes the courage to stand up and go for it.”

For Katie, Ziaudden Yousafzai’s message was just as powerful. “He said, ‘Every girl is special.’ A Nobel Peace Prize winner’s father is telling me I’m special. Sometimes you forget that. It’s not about me personally being special, but everyone, even the girls who feel forgotten, they ARE special. It really brought new light to my eyes.”

The experience has been a life changing one for all the girls.

Colleen explained, “I went home that night thinking, okay, Malala came here to Philadelphia and she inspired us so much. Now she has left and she’s going on to other countries, but we have the obligation to carry out her message here in the United States. We’re a developed country—and she works to help girls in countries that aren’t developed—but we still have those problems here. We want to continue her mission. I envision all teen-age girls coming together and really being supportive of one another, and being able to create a network where we can be there for one another.”

“We want to start a new initiative here in the schools in Philadelphia,” Jess said. “Malala’s focused on the big picture, so if we start working towards doing little things and make a difference on a local level, hopefully that will spread all over the country. The Philadelphia school system is the perfect example because it’s just in crisis right now. But every single voice that stands with us for the Philadelphia schools counts. Malala said, ‘When the whole world’s silent, one voice becomes powerful’ and you can imagine how many voices we can raise for the schools here.”

“We’re brainstorming right now,” Colleen revealed. “We’re an all-girls school, and there are many like us in our area and we’d like to come together, including girls in co-ed schools that share the same message.  By coming together, and starting an organization, we can have an impact in Philadelphia and help here. And then if other schools around the country do this, and they can focus locally, it’s really a national impact. We’re thinking, start local, think global.”

And they all have plans to continue their mission beyond their 2015 graduation.

“I’ve completely transitioned,” Colleen said. “I was always into science, and last year I thought I wanted to be a nutritionist. That was my goal, and I still love science, but being elected president, and then being in this initiative, I’ve really embraced my leadership skills and my creativity. I now see myself focusing on an emphasis on education, and the whole planning process within the community and carrying out a mission of women’s education.”

With Jess, the experience solidified her plans for the future. “I’ve always wanted to major in foreign affairs, with a minor in communication. So, what I’ve realized now is that I want to be an advocate for countries like Pakistan, for these countries that don’t have nearly the rights we have.”

And Katie is still up in the air, but is “looking into public policy and political science, maybe even going into the government realm or the non-profit realm—an area where I can help girls in this country who are struggling for an education…I would even love to be President one day—set your hopes and standards high! I’ve got a few years.”

Wherever they end up individually, they all see themselves coming together again in the future to continue their mission. Colleen summed it up: “I think it’s exciting because we all took this initiative and we’re running with it now with our futures.  And I feel like we’re all going to go our separate directions, but say, Katie’s in politics, and I’m staying here in America helping, and Jess is in Pakistan, and we can all come together. Because it all started at The Mount, and that’s what’s wonderful here. They say we create founders here, and the sisterhood is just so strong here. I came in as a freshman not knowing anyone and I’ve transformed. I think it goes to show that at The Mount it doesn’t matter who you are, we all come together. We all grow into leaders and founders.”

With this determination and drive, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see these women accepting their own Nobel Peace Prizes one day in the not so distant future.

Watch the video that started it all:

 

Watch Malala receiving the 2014 Liberty Medal: