9 November 2018

Olivia Cosgrove, co-founder of Row the Erne community rowing club, is a community superstar. Aside from building their boat (a traditional currach) from scratch and creating a unique mental health haven, Olivia has worked with Refugee Rescue in Lesvos, helping to save lives during refugees’ perilous crossings across the Aegean Sea.

In May 2017, she was selected along with Noel Johnston to represent Northern Ireland on an epic journey across England and around Northern Ireland for The Great Big Walk. Together they visited dozens of community groups celebrating the work they do, quietly and year-round, to make life better for people who need it the most.

What made you apply for the Walk?

The community in Scala, where I worked with Refugee Rescue in Lesvos, Greece were remarkable. While a transient population of volunteers filtered through their village they constantly welcomed us and made us feel part of their community. The same was true for their hospitality towards refugees who crossed that treacherous stretch of water. They really understood the ‘unity’ in ‘community’!

I realised that this is at the core of any community. People feeling valued, having a purpose, making time for others, listening and enjoying each other’s company. On my return I learnt about the walk and decided I wanted to celebrate what people were up to in communities everywhere and broadcast that positive message as far and as wide as possible.”

What was your best bit?

During the walk, the community feeling at each project really blew me away. Everyone I met just got it. They are dealing with hard issues in their community every day – loneliness, mental health, poverty, prejudice. They live it. 

Learning what people like Kathy Black (from Unit T in Newcastle), Catherine Taylor (from the Be Safe be Well Men’s Shed), or David Hunter (from Clearer Water in Larne) are doing and highlighting it for others felt really empowering. People were really glad to see us, showcase their projects and celebrate the difference they make locally.

I found the whole experience amazing. Some days were really long, with lots of walking, media appointments and events to visit in the evening too, but every single community stop was invigorating and we came away energised. The whole experience of connecting with people was special.

I had never done anything like it before, but having day after day filled up with the possibilities that people had made for their communities was very special. Just listening wholeheartedly can have a big impact on people.

What difference has taking part made to your understanding of community and what did you learn?

I have stayed in touch with many of the people we met and I now have a better understanding of different communities and their needs. 

The walk reminded me that human connection and fun are essential. That’s what it’s all about – making  life better. These sorts of things are critical, to people’s mental health, to their sense of belonging and being valued. Helping people achieve that for themselves doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as just being there with others, meeting them in their own space and on their own terms and listening, which is sometimes the best gift you can give.