By Harry Keaney
In her work for Concern Worldwide, the international relief organization founded in Ireland in 1968, Siobhan Walsh has traveled to Uganda, the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya and Haiti. But it’s a genocidal scene from Rwanda that will remain embossed on her mind forever.
Women and children, fleeing for their lives, had sought sanctuary in a church. Now, as Walsh stared in, all she saw were skeletons, shrouded by an eerie silence, the pungency of human decay languishing in the air.
"Sometimes, what you saw was the skeleton of a child wrapped around the skeleton of its mother," Walsh recalled.
Last Thursday, in her ninth floor office at 104 East 40th St. in Manhattan, Walsh was again preparing to say goodbye to a Concern worker traveling overseas. This time, it was Belfastman Dominic MacSorley heading to Kosovo, where Concern has four volunteers.
But busy as Walsh’s day was, she could nevertheless look back with a certain satisfaction as she relaxed on a flight home to Ireland Thursday night. Among the phone calls she had received was one from Tom Moran, the president and CEO of Mutual of America, to say he would write a $25,000 check for Concern’s effort in Kosovo.
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"Concern has a great history of making a difference and is clearly one of the most effective ways of our being able to have a positive influence on the lives of people there," Moran told the Echo.
Walsh, who’s 31, is one of a family of four from Fedamore, Co. Limerick. A brother John is a priest and her sister, Suzanne, a nurse. Her other brother, Francis, is an engineer.
John, who is seven years older than Siobhan, is a member of the Cork-based Society of Missions to Africa. "When you have someone in your family working in a place like Nigeria, you get an insight into the realities of day-to-day life in a very poor country," Walsh said.
As they exchanged letters, she occasionally got a sense of the loneliness and frustrations he experienced. "I guess I got to understand him in a light that I never would have," she said. "When you work with a humanitarian or non-profit group, it’s not a job. When you are really passionate about it, it becomes a way of life."
After receiving a degree in French and economics from University College, Cork, Walsh worked with a marketing company in Liverpool, England. She continued to study, and obtained a postgraduate diploma in international marketing.
With encouragement from her missionary brother, who had become severely ill with typhoid and malaria, she worked during summer vacations with the Little Way Association, a relief group.
She then decided that, having a degree in French and international marketing, she would give her services for two years to a humanitarian organization. However, she also felt that if she was to be serious about it, she should do a relevant course of study. At Maynooth University, she completed a postgraduate degree in social/economic policy and Third World development.
"With the course in Maynooth, you had to do a placement in an agency or field you were planning to go into," she explained.
Walsh chose Concern, with which she worked for six months in a voluntary capacity.
Because of her fluency in French, she had planned to go to Cambodia. But Concern officials felt they could make better use of her in their marketing division in Dublin, which was planning to target the corporate sector. It was a well-placed judement; Concern received the Gold Award at the 18th international competition for the Best European and Overseas Marketing Campaign.
In 1994, she transferred to New York to work as a member of a small team setting up the first office for Concern Worldwide in the U.S.
Two years later she became the executive director of Concern Worldwide U.S., Inc.