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Volunteer Spotlight - Sheelagh Byrne

Mission to Indonesia brings CCA volunteer full circle

"Time and distance just melted away," says veteran CCA volunteer Sheelagh Byrne of her reunion with Mahfirlana Mashadi last month at a training session for co-op leaders and developers in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The two co-op trainers hadn't seen each other since meeting almost 20 years ago to do the very same training in another part of that country.

"It was a homecoming," recalls Sheelagh. "We literally picked right up where we had left off so many years ago, finishing each others thoughts and sentences as we worked together. I'm still beaming!"

For Mahfirlana (Fir to all who meet her), the reunion was a humbling experience. "I know everything I know because of you, Ibu," she said to her mentor. And while the two had kept in touch via Facebook, Fir says working together again, doing what they love to do most, was like coming full circle.

Sheelagh & Fir | Today & 2001

After working with Sheelagh in 1999 - 2002, Fir went back to school, and is now a sought-after contractor for Indonesian organizations doing community development and post disaster recovery work. She is one of several alumnae from that first training who have gone on to build successful careers helping co-ops to succeed.

Every year, CCA and CDF send volunteers from Canadian credit unions and co-operatives to share their knowledge and experience with co-operatives in developing countries. In 2016, 43 volunteers conducted overseas assignments in nine countries.

Sheelagh Byrne first worked for CCA as an educator in the early 1980s. "Part of my job was to tell co-op and credit union folks in Atlantic Canada about the value their donations to the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada were having around the world. We all shared the same values and interest in helping people work their way out of poverty through co-operative action."

For Sheelagh, the decision to return to Indonesia for this assignment was an easy one.

"Having lived in Indonesia for two years in the late '90s, this is my third return mission to Indonesia, a country I love so much," she says. "The values of family and community are so strong among Indonesian people. That's what I appreciate about being here."

And there was the opportunity to see the legacy of the training she did so many years ago. Sheelagh helped design and road-test the Development Ladder Assessment (DLA) tool while training Fir and other co-operative trainers in Indonesia in the early 2000s. The DLA is a questionnaire that co-op and credit union leaders can use to assess how their organization is performing according to the main features of a healthy co-operative enterprise. It looks at the co-op's vision and strategic planning, its governance and member engagement, its management capacity and business development, and its financial management.

"We rolled it out here with dairy and financial co-ops as a way to give people a picture of where their co-ops were at, and the steps they needed to take to grow and succeed." Sheelagh and other CCA volunteers have coached co-op leaders and trainers in using the DLA in Indonesia, Mongolia, Uganda, China, Peru, Colombia, Ghana, Malawi, and Rwanda.

Sheelagh says the tool has evolved since its inception two decades ago and has seen co-ops transform their businesses using the DLA to gauge their strengths and weaknesses and to make needed course corrections.

"My life has been enriched by the many inspiring people I've had the pleasure to work with around the world. They are using the co-operative model to bring both social and economic prosperity to their communities. They are my role models."

Sheelagh says much has changed since those early years with CCA. "The Internet and email were in their infancy back then, so communication with family and friends was difficult-to-non-existent. Now, my husband Peter and I are on WhatsApp at least once a day. I don't feel the distance like I used to."

Sheelagh is as energetic and inspirational today as she was 20 years ago, says CCA staffer David Shanks. "She has a way of lighting fires in the minds and hearts of those she trains. That talent, and her steadfast belief in the co-operative way has not diminished one iota. They are what makes Sheelagh such a successful trainer."