Suzanne Strempek Shea met Mags Riordan 10 years ago at the Big E, the event billed as New England’s biggest fair held each September in Springfield at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds.
Shea, a writer and lifelong crafter, was selling Irish sweaters at a booth. At a nearby booth, Shea said, she overheard an Irish woman say she was collecting money for a clinic in Malawi, one she had created in honor of her son, who had died there.
Intrigued, Shea kept listening — “I always recommend that writers be very nosy” — and soon approached the woman to hear the rest of her story.
Mags Riordan, a guidance counselor from Dingle, in County Kerry, had already lost two children as babies — one to drowning, one to SIDS — before her son Billy died at age 25 while swimming in Malawi in 1999. An intrepid traveler, Billy had e-mailed his mother a few days before he died, extolling the beauty of the southeastern African nation: “Mom, you have to visit. This is paradise.”
On a trip to see where her son died, Shea said, Riordan “saw the beauty that he loved and also the great poverty there,” and decided to open a medical clinic. Staffed by local workers (it’s the town’s second-largest employer) and volunteer doctors, funded entirely by donations, the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic, in Cape Maclear, Malawi, has served 275,000 people to date.
Shea, a reporter-turned-novelist-turned-nonfiction writer, initially thought Riordan’s story would make a good magazine piece. Her husband Tommy Shea, “who always has the good ideas,” told her it needed to be a book. Ten years after that first meeting, it is.
“People think it’s a corny line that one person can change the world,” Shea said. “But I think Riordan’s an example of how one person can change a corner of the world, and it all stems from this great loss she experienced.”
Shea reads from “This Is Paradise” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Porter Square Books.Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.