Irish woman wins Obama Fellowship for green schools project

US-based Ciara Byrne hopes to export her food-growing scheme to Irish schools

An Irish woman has been selected for the prestigious 2019 Obama Fellowship programme established by the former US president to find the best community leaders from among thousands of applicants.

Ciara Byrne (48), originally from Palmerstown in Dublin, caught the Obama Foundation's eye with her Green Our Planet schools garden project in Nevada, a non-profit inspired in part by former US first lady Michelle Obama's passion for teaching children the benefits of gardening.

Ms Byrne’s success – she is one of 20 from a pool of 5,000 global hopefuls – will mean expert mentoring, development and marketing investment that could see her horticulture dream bloom.

Despite having lived in the US for the past 25 years, working in the film and television industry, Ms Byrne hopes she may one day export her company home to Irish schools.


It focuses on teaching the value of growing food – taking in conservation, ecology and nutrition as well as finance and entrepreneurism – and children learn about hydroponic growing systems and establishing and running farmer’s markets.

In the past year her fifth-grade classes have run more than 200 such markets – more than anywhere else in the State.

“You can imagine as a 10- or 11-year-old how empowering that is – [the idea that] there is a problem and we are going to solve it,” Ms Byrne told The Irish Times.

“It allows kids to learn in a more engaging fun way; it’s experiential learning.”

Earlier this month Green Our Planet hosted the largest student-run farmers market in the US, with more than 500 pupils from 49 schools.

Not confident

A part of Barack Obama’s post-presidential work, the fellowship aims to find leaders working to alleviate some of the world’s most pressing problems. The programme’s inaugural round last year saw about 20,000 people apply for just 20 positions.

David Simas, chief executive of the Obama Foundation, said this year's list of leaders will tackle "big, complex issues in unique and inspiring ways" to bring about positive community change.

Given the scale of competition, Ms Byrne said she was not confident but applied anyway. While on a trip home to family in Ireland last Christmas, however, she was invited to take part in one of two rigorous interviews with foundation selectors, part of an eight-month process that finally culminated in her recent good news.

“I was sitting at my computer and I saw the email and I was just frozen. I thought, Okay, I’m going to have to open this, and I read the first sentence and I just started screaming,” she said.

On Thursday Ms Byrne will travel to Washington DC to meet her fellow leaders and begin a week-long think-in session to develop an organisational “road map”.

“The kind of non-profit they want to work with are those that have already proven successful in their own community,” she said. “Obviously we have learned a lot – we have made a lot of mistakes, but we have also got a lot right.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times