Community Leader Spotlight: Irini McCarthy, Wholespire Lancaster County

For the past three years, Wholespire Lancaster County, formerly Eat Smart Move More Lancaster County, has been under the co-leadership of Irini McCarthy and Candra Riley. During this time, the Wholespire chapter has made some major policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) changes. Now, the chapter is looking for a new co-chair as Irini McCarthy’s public health career leads her to new opportunities in North Carolina.  

While working for the Upper Midlands Rural Health Network (UMRHN), McCarthy was responsible for expanding the UMRHN into Lancaster County and leading the Lancaster County Health and Wellness Commission. Through this work, she began attending Wholespire Lancaster County meetings and became a chapter member. When the chapter’s chair stepped down, McCarthy was approached by coalition members to take on the role of co-chair alongside Candra Riley.

“I loved Candra, and we’ve been working on stuff together. I knew this was going to be a great partnership. I decided that if Candra is doing it, I’ll do it along with her,” said McCarthy.

Irini was good at getting the emails out and I was good at taking minutes and coming up with the agenda,” said Candra Riley, co-chair of Wholespire Lancaster County. “If I could have a co-chair like that for all my coalitions and committees…she made it so easy.”   

McCarthy felt it was awesome to work with the group in Lancaster that was so diverse. Chapter members had different perspectives, but common goals of wanting the community to thrive by focusing on equitable change, food security, access to care, and PSE changes.  

According to Riley, McCarthy had a huge impact on healthy eating and active living in Lancaster County, and she had a vision of some things that she wanted to do like bringing FoodShare to Lancaster County. She was very instrumental in the initial engagement of partners on the FoodShare Lancaster County project, which is still doing well today. She also helped by bringing in different local speakers and creating the newsletter for the chapter.

One of McCarthy’s most memorable moments with Wholespire Lancaster County was completing the walkability assessment in the Town of Heath Springs. She was impressed with all of the partners that attended including Lancaster County Council, Town Councils, and residents. Implementing the Faith, Activity, and Nutrition Program was also a high note for her, especially working with the churches, Town of Heath Springs Community Relations Volunteer Dr. Zora Denson, and Professor and Director of the University of South Carolina Prevention Research Center Dr. Sara Wilcox. She pointed out that these two projects are examples of systemic change and small steps to implementing a culture of health.

When asked if her work in Lancaster prepared her for her new role in North Carolina, she replied, “Oh yeah, oh my gosh!” While at UMRHN, she helped Lancaster become the first county in South Carolina to become 100% tobacco-free. According to McCarthy, her career experiences and community and chapter work is knowledge that she can take with her and apply in her new role as Tobacco Prevention Coordinator for Mecklenburg County.

“All of the work that we did in…those are all big PSE level changes and that’s what this new role for me is,” said McCarthy. “I always knew that I wanted to do PSE level work because it impacts the greatest amount of people. And it has to be equitable. For me, that’s exciting. I love that kind of work. That’s what we did in Lancaster, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

During her time as co-chair of Wholespire Lancaster County, McCarthy also showed a great deal of leadership around health and racial equity. The outstanding notes she took during the 2020 Promoting Equity Among Communities Effectively (P.E.A.C.E.) training were shared with other coalitions and she modified a race equity assessment to be more applicable for coalitions. 

When asked how she became interested in equity she explained, “It started working in rural communities. We don’t have a lot of monetary funds but have an asset-based approach of using our different partners and using the resources we do have to try and make things equitable, and you can do a lot with a little.”

McCarthy is very passionate about racial equity and disparities. She said, “There are so many people who just don’t get it or who don’t understand it and as many times as you’re talking it’s almost like you’re hitting a wall, but you don’t give up. You keep talking. You keep educating. And you hope that you plant a seed, and you advocate for the right thing to happen That’s where my passion is – equitable PSE change. That’s kind of where I want to be.”

Community health improvement requires community leadership like that of McCarthy, her co-chair Riley, and the members and partners of Wholespire Lancaster County to truly make change happen. During her short time as co-chair of Wholespire Lancaster County, Irini McCarthy has had a lasting positive impact on the people of Lancaster County, and she will be truly missed by those not just in Lancaster County but in other counties too.