Hollymount woman Martina Jennings was named Mayo’s Inspirational Woman 2015 at a sold-out gala event in the Royal Theatre Hotel, Castlebar, on Tuesday night.
At the inaugural Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Little Christmas ) celebration awards, organised as a fundraiser for the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, Ms Jennings was honoured for her inspirational campaign to raise awareness about cystic fibrosis and the instrumental role she has played in developing a state-of-the-art €1.3 million CF clinic at Mayo General Hospital.
Ms Jennings was just 21 years old when she left her college studies to begin helping to care for her seven-year-old brother, Billy, who is a CF patient, following the death of her mother.
She then used her experiences to help others by campaigning and fundraising tirelessly to make the dream of a highly specialised CF unit in Mayo become a reality.
Martina said the Nollaig na mBan gala event was “indescribable” and “truly uplifting.”
Ms Jennings was nominated for the award alongside five other inspirational women from around the county.
Maria Walsh from Shrule, the first openly gay Rose of Tralee, was nominated for the role she has played in boosting and encouraging those struggling with their sexual orientation to feel proud of who they are.
The late Martina Loftus, a mother of five daugthers, who battled with severe ill health for 12 years before succumbing to pancreatic cancer, was nominated by her family members for the way in which she helped them to deal with her diagnosis and accept it with courage.
Ber Hoban, who suffers from transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal chord, was nominated for the inspiration she has provided to family, friends, and all who meet her through the way in which she speaks of her journey to give others hope, determination, and the courage to accept and change their lives if required to do so.
Kany Kazadi, a young woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was nominated for her volunteer work with Mayo Intercultural Action. Ms Kazadi lived for many years under direct provision and she now works tirelessly to help other asylum seekers in a similar situation.
Breege Duggan was nominated by her daugther, who said she is a true role model and an inspirational mother. Ms Duggan went back to education when her family were grown up and gained a qualification in community development. She now continously helps others around her to achieve their goals, as she has done.
Ms Jennings said it was an honour to be named among her fellow nominees.
“To be honest I didn’t know anything about this campaign until the nominations came through. When I read my nominations, I couldn’t believe it was me they were speaking about,” she said.
“And to win it, especially when I saw the other nominees, was a shock. It may sound like a cliché but these women are truly amazing and to be named among them was an honour.”
Ms Jennings, together with her sisters Caroline and Maria and her father, Tony O’Toole, took over the care of Billy (who is now 28 ) and their other younger brother Anthony, following the death of their mother Maureen 21 years ago.
Maureen and Tony were both CF campaigners and supported many other CF patients and their families, using their own experiences as the parents of a CF sufferer to help others.
A few years ago Martina and her sisters found their own way to follow in their parents’ footsteps, when they founded Friends of CF.
“The initial idea was to try and give financial support to families who needed it,” said Ms Jennings.
“We started working with the CF team in Castlebar and we asked them what they needed and they said a clinic. Initially it was to cost €600,000 but that rose to €1.3 million.”
Martina and her family worked with the CF Association of Ireland and other CF patients and families in Mayo to found CF West.
The group fundraised the huge figure of €850,000, and with the help of funding from Lotto, the HSE, and the CF Association of Ireland, the highly specialised CF clinic is now almost complete. It is expected to open in March or April.
“Most of the money was fundraised in Mayo,” said Martina. “Mayo people are incredible and I really mean that. They got behind us and they believed in us. The best thing is, they will be able to see exactly where their money is gone,” she continued. “It is all there in the clinic.”
The clinic will provide a safe place for CF patients to receive their treatment and will also provide the CF team with the space and facilities they need to carry out their work.
Ms Jennings said she is now hoping her Mayo’s Most Inspirational Woman award will help to further raise awareness about CF in Mayo and Ireland.
She also encouraged anyone battling ill health to read her brother Billy’s blog, at www.billycf.ie, which has so far received more than 20,000 visitors and which Martina described as a source of hope for many, many people.
The Mayo Rape Crisis Centre launched the Nollaig na mBan event after encountering financial difficulties due to structural damage to their building.
The centre provides a vital space for victims of sexual abuse and violence in Mayo to get support.
The event was held on January 6 to coincide with Nollaig na mBan, a date traditionally set aside in Ireland as Women’s Little Christmas, when women who had worked so hard over the festive season could come together to relax and enjoy a day for themselves.
“We wanted for many years to link Nollaig na mBan to some kind of celebration of women,” said Ruth McNeely, former director at Mayo Rape Crisis Centre and volunteer fundraiser.
“Women really do incredible things in their communities and we love that the six nominees, who are all very diverse, reflected that.
“Martina is an incredible and very worthy first winner.”
Ms McNeely said the event was a great success and they are hoping to develop it into an annual awards ceremony.