WEST BEVERLY — 2014 South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade Queen Maeve McSweeney leaves Monday for a tour of — where else? — Ireland. But the final destination for the Parade Queen's travels is much more unexpected.
McSweeney, 22, of West Beverly will travel to Ireland then to Germany with a final stop in Belarus. There, she and other 15 other contestants from the Rose of Tralee International Festival will work with children affected by the Chernobyl accident.
Children with physical disabilities, cognitive issues and more stemming from the 1986 accident at the nuclear power plant are sent to the Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum. The facility is funded by the Irish-based charity Chernobyl Children International.
The charity gets an annual boost from the contestants in the Rose of Tralee. The televised pageant is one of the top 5 most viewed events in Ireland and garners international attention, McSweeney said.
She competed in the Rose of Tralee in 2014 and 2015, advancing to the international round last year. While touring Ireland with her fellow contestants, she learned of the group's efforts towards helping children affected by Chernobyl.
"I love kids. When I heard about this in Ireland, I just thought of it as a calling," McSweeney said Wednesday.
She created a GoFundMe page on Oct. 23 with the hopes of raising $3,000 for her visit. On Wednesday, McSweeney reached her goal with the help of students from her elementary school alma mater — St. John Fisher School.
The students raised $1,319 in donations during Catholic Schools Week. In exchange for a small contribution towards McSweeney's trip, the students were allowed to dress in something other than their Catholic school uniform for a day.
McSweeney is paying for the flight to Ireland herself. She'll use a portion of the money from the GoFundMe effort to pay for travel to Belarus as well as visas, translators, food and insurance.
But the bulk of the funds from the GoFundMe effort, as well as anything she receives beyond her goal, will be given back to residents of the asylum, said McSweeney, who is one of only two Americans going on the trip. The other volunteers are all from Ireland, she said.
"I know that [the children] get really excited that we are coming," said McSweeney, adding that she cannot eat the food, drink the water or even shower when she is there because of lingering concerns about radiation.
McSweeney graduated from Marquette University in May, where she studied biology. She has applied to several medical schools in Ireland and hopes to someday become a doctor.
Meanwhile, the St. Ignatus College Prep grad has been working at Chicago-area hospitals, doing research and providing medical charting information. She hopes to hear back from schools in the spring.
She'll return from her trip just in time for the pre-parade fundraiser for the South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade. The event from 6-11 p.m. on Feb. 27 will include the selection of the 2016 South Side Irish Parade Queen. McSweeney is one of the judges.
She also plans to return to St. John Fisher to share her experience as well as photographs with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students — many of whom contributed to her efforts to travel to Belarus.
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