Donegal sisters doing it for themselves, and their community

A mutual passion for mental wellness and community engagement

Donegal sisters doing it for themselves, and their community

Linda Uí Ghallchóir and Maria Coleman.

Maria Coleman and Linda Uí Ghallchóir are sisters-in-law and know each other over 20 years. With very different educational backgrounds, it was a surprise to both of them how similar their career goals turned out to be.

It wasn’t until they sat beside each other at a start-your-own-business course, run by Údarás na Gaeltachta with Mng in 2016, that they discovered their mutual passion for mental wellness and community engagement.

“My degree, masters and PhD research in art, music and technology had a trajectory while I was in Dublin, but once we started our family in west Donegal, the niche I was carving seemed irrelevant, while I was loitering around the bottom of the career ladder, working part-time for minimum wages.” Coleman explained.

Her light-bulb moment came unexpectedly.

“I was working in Ionad Naomh Pádraig when Bressie presented at their ‘Comhdháil Sláinte Meabhrach.’ I had a good conversation with him that day and ended up editing the video of his speech, so his story made an extra impact. I was inspired," she said. "I realised that I needed to work in the field of mental wellness. Through family and personal experience, I had insights into the state of mental health services and felt sure that early, activity-based interventions would have an important role to play in improving the situation. Although art and music were always in my repertoire, I decided to take ‘my secret weapon’, of yoga more seriously, and eventually trained up as teacher. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Having returned to the Donegal Gaeltacht with degrees in social care and psychology, Uí Ghallachóir got married and started her family. Although she worked on a Donegal County Childcare Committee project that developed social-awareness resources for preschool children, other suitable jobs opportunities were scarce. The route to Linda’s ideal career was also hampered by health difficulties.

“When I got pregnant with my son, problems developed with my eyes and I ended up in a battle to save my sight,” she said. “Although my studies had revolved around mental wellness, it wasn’t until I faced this battle that I had personal experience of developing effective coping skills. It made sense to bring my story of positive mental health through vision loss and chronic illness to my career plans.”

They decided to collaborate, and their ideas quickly crystallized around a teen wellness program they call ‘Beoga’, meaning ‘lively’ or ‘vibrant’. The initiative, which teaches positive coping skills to young people through yoga and participative wellness workshops, was recently piloted with transition-year students from Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, where the feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive.

The program, which could be rolled out through schools, community groups or GAA clubs, looks to empower young people to create and maintain a resilient and positive outlook through life's ongoing challenges.

Themes such as self-compassion, stress management, self-advocacy and anxiety are explored through theory-based workshops (discussion, videos, journaling), and yoga sessions (poses, breathing techniques, meditation and relaxation). Pairing practical skills with theory, Beoga's creates an innovative and broad-spectrum approach to wellness. Crucially, the material is delivered in an informal style that encourages ownership and participation.

Though they initially hoped to use a ‘social enterprise’ business model, they found this to be a cumbersome process in Ireland. The pair instead followed their dream of social engagement by founding a community wellness initiative called ‘LÁMHA: Life Affirming Mental Health Action.’

Uí Gallachóir explained, “Our first action was to run a series of awareness-raising events at grassroots level in the Rosses. Majella O’Donnell spoke at it, as did representatives from the HSE, from Shine, Grow, Jigsaw and other mental health groups. We had Bill Vaughan from MHI deliver a workshop and had a series of talks on achieving wellness through pastimes by the likes of Iain Miller (Unique Ascent) and Joanne Lindsay Butler (OURganic Gardens) at CLG Naomh Mhuire.”

Coleman continued, “Training we did through Donegal County Council’s Ladder program showed us that globally, female economic empowerment not only means better outcomes for individuals but also for the community.

“Our experience is no different,” she said. “As we begin our new businesses, we are also looking to spread the good vibrations. Our work with LÁMHA now sees us about to play a role in helping to set up a Community Health Forum in the Rosses. It’s all good.”

There’s more information on Beoga on www.comhcheol.net/beoga, on Maria’s business, Comhcheol Arts and Wellness, on www.comhcheol.net, and on Linda’s enterprise, PHEW (Positive Health and Emotional Wellbeing) which launches this autumn, on www.phew.webnode.com

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