Thursday, April 8, 2010
Gilligan enjoys volunteer work
By SUE WATSON
The first woman to scuba dive to the 1914 wreck of the Empress of Ireland was a volunteer with Sacred Heart Southern Missions a few weeks ago.
Veronica “Ronni” Gilligan spent part of her three and a half week stay in Mississippi in Holly Springs tutoring school children at Holy Family School, traveling with a home health nurse and serving dinner to those in need at the Garden Cafe at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
Volunteering is nothing new for Gilligan who has spent her retirement years helping those in need in dozens of foreign countries. This was her first time in Mississippi.
Retired as a specialist in bringing mobility to the blind, Gilligan has not sat still herself.
She has traveled extensively with Maryknoll Missions - the U.S. Catholic Missions movement - overseas. In Thailand she taught Buddhist monks English, in Cambodia she worked with hospitals, in Nepal she taught study skills to boys and English to women, in Albania she taught young people leadership skills, English and Catholicism, in Bolivia she helped at a school for the blind.
Gilligan worked in Catholic outreach on two American Indian Reservations, helping with religious education for children and in any capacity.
She began volunteering after she retired in 1995 and spends three or four months out of each year combining volunteering with travel.
At home in Long Beach, New York, Gilligan spends her summers on the beach, following her love for water that began as a child when she visited her grandmother and took her first swimming lessons and learned to swim in the ocean.
Moving to Syracuse, New York, for graduate school, Gilligan volunteered for the YMCA and took their free scuba diving course.
“I moved from the coast to Syracuse, a place with no water, and learned to dive,” she said.
She learned to dive in the St. Lawrence River. It was a stroke of luck that produced an opportunity to dive the shipwreck of the Empress of Ireland, a ship that was loaded with passengers when it was struck by another ship and sank in 15 minutes killing all aboard.
No one had been inside the wreck, Gilligan said, mainly because no famous people were aboard and the ship carried nothing valuable in material.
“More people died in it than the Titanic,” she said.
The passenger ship was headed for Liverpool, England, and on return trips brought immigrants back to Canada, she said.
Some of those who died in the wreck were among a group of Salvation Army Missions on their way to a conference, she said.
All she saw in terms of remains were a leg bone and skull, she said.
“On one dive I saw a denim jacket hanging on a hook,” she said. “I don't know how it lasted in one piece.”
The group dived three summers in a row and the first dive lasted one month.
“We thought we’d be rich,” Gilligan said. “We found a safe, the last dive of the year.”
The shipbuilders’ plaque, a captain’s wheel, a third class passenger plaque, plates and cups were among the items brought up.
The strong box was empty and contained packs that later were found to be tickets for a ferry ride.
Gilligan was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2006 because she was mentioned and became famous by the publication of a book on the dive, “Dark Descent,” by Kevin F. McMurray.
Other foreign travel includes work in the Middle East from 1979-1981, where Gilligan helped set up a program to train Arabs from the Gulf States in rehabilitation techniques and mobility. During her tour there, she visited Egypt, Africa. Gilligan estimates she has visited close to 100 foreign countries in her lifetime.
She is the oldest of three girls and has twin sisters three years younger than herself.
Gilligan directed a college program for the blind in the summers at Syracuse, helping high school graduates prepare to live independently as college students. She worked with an upstate medical center.
“It is one of the proudest things I have done and I’m really happy,” she said.
For 20 years she helped blind kids coming out of institutions prepare for college life.
She said their Braille skills were terrific while their social skills were lacking.
“It was great to see kids coming out of the program whom I ran into later and they had become lawyers, disc jockeys, stock brokers, teachers,” she said. “One was a totally blind mountain climber. A wonderful bunch of people blossomed and found dignity.”
Gilligan said she felt welcomed in Holly Springs and at Sacred Heart Southern Missions. If invited, she would like to come back.
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