By G. Michael Dobbs
PALMER – At the Eastern States Exposition, thousands of people walk past the booths in the exhibition buildings every day. Some people stop when their eye catches something interesting, while many move on.
Author Suzanne Strempek Shea was one of the people whose attention was caught in 2004 by a booth raising money for The Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic in Cape Maclear, Malawi. A decade later, her new book, “This is Paradise,” about the clinic and how it came about has just been published.
Shea, a former newspaper reporter, has written nine other books, including the novels “Selling the Lite of Heaven,” “Hoopi Shoopi Donna,” “Lily of the Valley,” “Around Again” and “Becoming Finola,” as well as the memoirs “Songs From a Lead-lined Room: Notes – High and Low – From My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation,” “Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore,” and “Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith.”
Shea explained to Reminder Publications that in 2004 she was helping a friend manage a booth in the Irish section of the International Pavilion of the Big E. One of the other booths in that section of the building was dedicated to The Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic. She watched how Mags Riodan, the founder of the clinic, repeated the story behind her fundraising effort to people over and over and thought to herself at the time “the Big E was a funny place to be promoting something [like that].”
She introduced herself and became “captivated” by Riodan’s story, who started the clinic in the poverty-stricken nation as a way to honor her son who died while visiting there.
Her reporter’s instincts took hold as she learned more about what Riodan had accomplished and said she knew she needed to write about it.
“People would walk up to Mags’ booth, look at the photos of the village and the kids playing outside the clinic, and they’d ask what the display was about. Mags would start to say something like, ‘I built a clinic in the village where my son died,’ and many of the people would just walk away,” Shea said. “Others would approach, she’d repeat the same stark information. I wanted to know who this person was, what had happened to her son, and how does someone go about doing something like starting a clinic – how does one single person do something that? Apart from that, how does someone repeat a horrible truth like that, over and over, very often to disinterested ears?
“I got to know Mags well by asking a lot of questions over the years since, and feel everyone else needs to get to know her well, too. The first time he heard me talk about Mags, my husband, Tommy Shea, who always has the great idea, said, ‘That’s a book.’”
Although she had developed a friendship with Riodan, it wasn’t until 2010 when she started writing the book. To do so, she traveled to Malawi and stayed at the clinic for a month.
The trip “was truly eye-opening,” she said. She added that she, like many Americans, grew up with a image of what Africa, but didn’t know what to expect.
To get to the clinic, she flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, and then traveled an additional two hours to Malawi. She then took another journey by car to the clinic.
“I got to see the physical place and got to see what the clinic does there,” she said.
Shea noted the village has a population of about 15,000 people. There is no newspaper as well as no social services, no conventional plumbing or water supply. Electricity was erratic at best. About 90 percent of the residents have no employment and before the clinic was built the only medical facility was 11 miles away. There are only about five cars in the community.
She explained, “A slight infection can grow into something that can kill you.”
During the past decade, though, the clinic has seen 275,000 patients and treated with a population that has an HIV/AIDS rate of 14 percent. The average life expectancy is only 54 years.
The clinic is staffed by 12 doctors and nurses who are all volunteers who pay their own way to get to the village. They are largely from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. The clinic will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Aug. 24.
Shea found both the staff and the people “very welcoming” and explained that after an initial funding from the Irish government, the clinic relies on donations.
Locally, the American fundraising arm of the organization, Billy’s Malawi Project USA, is located in West Springfield. As well as assisting Riodan with the booth at the Big E selling crafts by artisans from Malawi, the organization has presented marathons to raise money. Shea said a new fundraiser has driven home the point of the kind of struggle the people of Malawi face. On March 29, they asked people to donate $10 and would receive three packages of oatmeal, which is comparable to the meal of maize the villagers eat twice daily.
“People get creative when they get to know and love Mags,” Shea said of the fundraisers.
Initially Shea simply wanted to tell the story of Riodan’s commitment to the clinic and her son’s memory. She explained a fellow writer told her an author should “write what you can’t shut up about.”
Now, however, she is hoping the book “will do something to help out.”
Shea will be undertaking a series of appearances to publicize the book. She will be reading and signing the book at the reading and signing at Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College St., South Hadley on May 1 at 1 p.m.; on May 17 from 1 to 3 p.m. at an author’s event at the Norcross Center, 89 Maple St., East Longmeadow; and on June 11 at 6:30 p.m. with author M.P. Barker at 6:30 p.m. at the East Longmeadow Public Library, 60 Center Square. Other appearances later this year can be found at www.suzannestrempekshea.com
The book is on sale locally at the Odyssey Bookshop, Bay Path College in Longmeadow and the Broadside Book Shop in Northampton as well as online booksellers.
This is the first of two new books to appear this year by Shea. Her new novel, “Make a Wish But Not for Money” will be released on October. She said it tells the story of Rosie Pilch, a palm reader who has set up shop in “dead” shopping mall.
To learn how to make a donation to the clinic, contact the Billy’s Malawi Project by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or go to www.billysmalawiprojectusa.org