McEldowney reflected Wednesday on her time with the 2016 title — an achievement revered among Irish descendants worldwide. She was the first "Chicago Rose" to return with the sash in 29 years. The televised pageant is one of the top five most viewed events in Ireland.
"I'm hoping what comes through most is my gratitude," the Beverly native said. "I realize that none of this would have happened without my family and my neighborhood supporting me."
McEldowney, 28, was encouraged to enter the competition by Rose O'Neill, her grandmother's sister-in-law during a 2012 visit to Maghera, County Derry. The 100-year-old woman still lived on the family farm and encouraged her American great niece to apply to become a "rose."
She went on to win the coveted title Aug. 23, 2016 and has visited Ireland eight times during her reign. In total, McEldowney has been to eight countries and 10 states representing the Rose of Tralee International Festival, which runs from Aug. 13-22 this year.
"It's the greatest experience ever," McEldowney said. "You see all walks of life."
As the Rose of Tralee, McEldowney has sipped champagne wearing a formal gowns, visited with seniors in Ireland and held children with physical disabilities, cognitive issues and more resulting from the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986.
This little boy stole my heart in Belarus. He is in the younger male unit, which is less dependent than units 2&5. I liked to think of this room as the 'lost boys' bc they are crazy! They like to pull out your hair and try to take your bags (the other little fella in the photo just hopped in so he could get a better chance at my hair bun) 😂 I found him on our first day rocking behind the couch. He's wrapped in a handkerchief bc he self harms, you might notice the little bald spots on his head and scratches on his face (his hand was actually jammed in his poor little eye socket the first day). He shuttered at my touch, but never stopped rocking. I stayed by his side that day. I came back the second day to find him on the couch, and by the end of the visit he finally cracked a smile. On the last day, I walked in to the room and found him sitting on the bench. When he saw me, he lunged at me for a hug. We curled up on the couch where this photo was taken. It just goes to show you what a small bit of love and attention can do for a child. I never even got his name, we never spoke a word. I pray someone is taking the time to spend a moment with him now. #roseoftralee #chernobylchildreninternational #belarus #chernobyl #childcare #love #hugs
"There are no words to prepare you for what you are in for," McEldowney said of her visit to the Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum in Belarus.
Another particularly impactful visit took place in November when McEldowney visited Kolkata, India to work with The Hope Foundation. There, she saw children as young as 3 living in a landfill, surviving by picking plastic and glass from the trash to sell on the street.
"You are looking at the worst form of poverty you can possibly imagine," she said.
Still, he was inspired by the foundation's work, which has more than 60 projects in the region. The group has built schools and a hospital and even has a security force to protect vulnerable children from being kidnapped.
McEldowney also ran in the Tralee International Marathon March 18. She completed a half marathon in her first return visit to Ireland since her crowning, raising money for the Baile Mhuire Day Care Centre for the Elderly in Tralee and Young Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago, where she's a board member.
#tbt to one of the highlights of my year- crossing the finish line of the #traleehalfmarathon, knowing that with your help-we surpassed the fundraising goal for both the Baile Mhuire home in Tralee, and the Young Irish Fellowship Club Charities in Chicago. I ran the entire race beside our incredible Rebecca, another cherished friendship made through the Rose of Tralee Festival. I felt as if 'run like a girl' took on a whole new meaning that day, and I'm pretty proud of that. #roseoftralee #charityhalfmarathon #yifc #bailemhuire #friends #running #runningbuddy @youngirishfc @roseoftraleefestival @rebeccatralee ❤
A South Loop resident, McEldowney works as a fundraiser at Marist High School. She was part of only the second class of girls to walk the hallways of the Mount Greenwood school after it went coed in 2002.
McEldowney has written a speech that she plans to give in her final hours as Rose of Tralee. In it, she will highlight not only her own accomplishments but also all of the volunteer efforts from the 65 other Roses and their escorts from last year.
She said people would often ask how she managed to keep up with all of the events. Rather than spend too much time thinking about her lack of sleep or extensive travel, McEldowney said she focused on what she had done and how much she has learned.
"I think they realized I gave my all this year," she said.