Westmeath VEC's Adult Education Officer Rina McKenna becomes acting CEO of the organisation tomorrow, Thursday, March 1. A native of Dublin, Rina now sees Athlone as home.
Moving to the town in 1993, she has since become an integral part of the fabric that makes up her local community in Drum as well as Westmeath VEC. Rina takes up the new challenge as acting CEO of Westmeath VEC as a result of the departure of current CEO Val O'Connor.
Born a Dubliner to a mother and father both hailing from the west of Ireland, Rina taught subjects chemistry and maths to students in Portmarnock Community School in north county Dublin before moving to Athlone with her family.
With three small children, Rina and her husband Brian decided to relocate to the countryside. In 1993 the big move happened, with Athlone the chosen destination and a new job with Elan for Brian.
Soon after moving Rina took up a job teaching IT in Athlone VTOS and later moved into the role of co-ordinator of the programme funded by the Department of Education and run by Westmeath VEC. Rina's next stepping stone took her to the role she currently holds, that of Adult Education Officer at Westmeath VEC, and though now she's moving on she says it is one she has thoroughly enjoyed along with her time at Athlone VTOS.
"It was very interesting to work with adults," she says, contrasting her days as a secondary school teacher with a career focusing on adult learners in Athlone. In her early days she said the big challenges were that most people lacked confidence and thought perhaps they'd never work, coupled with a shortage of appropriate exams other than the Junior and Leaving Certificate. "It was difficult to get accreditation," she explains. Back then some students did progress to Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT), but not many. Nowadays this has changed, with 17 of the 25 people who graduated in Athlone going on to AIT last year.
A lot has changed in the intervening years and now Westmeath VEC caters for over 6,000 adult learners annually. As Adult Education Officer for Rina this has meant working with twelve managers countywide and spending as much time in Mullingar as Athlone. Added to this are visits to Youthreach centres in Kilbeggan and Delvin and regular meetings, meaning for the past number of years Rina has rarely been in the office.
Looking to the role she takes up as of tomorrow, Rina says it's both "exciting and challenging".
Her main focus will be the completion of a new school building for Athlone Community College. Three other schools in the county under the VEC in Mullingar, Castlepollard and Killucan are also growing Rina says, and will need additional facilities and accommodation in the coming years. Now is a "really tough time" to be looking for new buildings however, Rina admits, but that bridge is one to be crossed in the future.
Another focus for Rina as acting CEO, and one not experienced by her predecessors, is preparing for new education training boards and amalgamating with neighbouring VEC in Longford.
The amalgamation is also the reason Rina's new role is a temporary rather than permanent one. Rina says co-operation is key for Westmeath and Longford VECs as they look to the future.
"Locally we just get on very well together," she says, explaining that the two VECs have already had two meetings and another is planned for Longford shortly.
"We explained to each other exactly what we do and how passionate we are about what we do," she says. "We just intend to co-operate at every possible level between now and then," she says, to make for as straightforward an integration as possible when the time comes.
Rina says she often misses her time in the classroom and watching students grow from the twelve year olds they begin as to the adults they leave as. This is one reason she says she's looking forward to continuing her work with schools as acting CEO. However she adds that dealing with teaching allocation reductions is going to be very difficult.
There are also personal reasons behind Rina's successful application for the role of acting CEO of Westmeath VEC.
Last year Rina's husband Brian died aged 50. After working with Elan Brian set up pharmaceutical research company BioClin with Mary Burke. The company still exists and employs approximately 20 in its Athlone base.
Rina says keeping herself really busy with work she enjoys is her positive way of helping herself get through the tough second year after her bereavement. Meeting and working with people who are passionate about their work is the perfect antidote to her own grieving process she says.
Another huge support for Rina is her family of three children. Her youngest two daughters are in college in University College Cork but come home often. A joyous family occasion is coming up in June, when her son who lives in Indonesia gets married in Java in what will be a big family wedding with many making the trip from Athlone.
Rina also enjoys exercising, and takes part in zumba and pilates classes locally. Walking is also a hobby, and a group of just under 20 have plans to continue a decade long tradition of "half walking, half jogging" the women's mini marathon on June 4. The group have always done the marathon for charity and this year they will do it for a cause close to Rina's heart - St James' haematology ward, where her husband spent time.
Before then, Rina is hoping to begin her new challenge as acting CEO of Westmeath VEC with back-up from staff she knows, school principals she's looking forward to working with and managers who are "just wonderful support".