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Appalachian Center Event Honors Marie Cirillo

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Marie Cirillo has invested most of her life in developing impoverished communities in and around Eagan, Tennessee. She will be honored with C-N’s Award for Educational Service to Appalachia. Photo - Adam Brimer/Knoxville News Sentinel.

Carson-Newman presented the Award for Educational Service to Appalachia to Marie Cirillo yesterday. The honor, which celebrates those who have worked for the betterment of the Southern Appalachian region, was cosponsored by C-N’s Appalachian Studies Committee and the Bonner Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement.

Cirillo is an 82-year-old former nun who left the Glenmary Order in 1967 to help people beset by economic hardships in Claiborne and Campbell counties. Her efforts have included the formation of the Cleafork Community Institute and the Woodland Community Land Trust, through which some 450 acres are provided through renewable leases for building homes, establishing businesses and offering plots for gardens.

In nominating the Brooklyn, New York native for the recognition, C-N psychology professor Dr. Larry Osborne cited Cirillo’s dedication to helping residents “sustain themselves and resist the environmental destruction of their homeplace.”

While her work has been important for almost a half-century, Osborne championed his friend’s commitment to the future through investing in young people. “Marie has worked with our Bonner Scholars as well as students from other colleges and universities around the country. She has helped educate them about Appalachian strengths and challenges, and the responsibilities of being an educated person of privilege in a world of such great differences between rich and poor.”

Her influence on young leaders has included Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy. The attorney and author spent the summer she was 15 filming a project on life in coal mining communities around Eagan, Tennessee.

“She’s engaged in the world and the community,” said Kennedy of Cirillo in a 2010 Knoxville News Sentinel profile of the community activist. “She has had an incredible career over time. She remains committed and is a tremendous inspiration.”

Settling initially in Clairfield, Cirillo used her sociology degree to help develop things that area residents said they needed, including a medical clinic and a development organization that acquired property and sold affordable lots. Residents subsequently worked with her to establish a village that offered a library, water utility and clothing mercantile. Her life’s work has provided direct benefit to more than 3000 residents in the mountain region just south of the Kentucky border.

Osborne notes that Cirillo’s impact has rippled well beyond Clearfork Valley. “Marie collaborated in the writing of a significant social and religious analysis of Appalachia, called “At Home in the Web of Life,” and has been an invited speaker at many conferences, including the United Nations. She also attended the Service Learning for Social Justice conference here at C-N in the mid-1990s and thereafter helped to found Just Connections, in which she has been active ever since.”

The CCI is housed in an old public school the WCLT acquired as a multipurpose facility. While classrooms are used for offices, exhibit areas and meetings, the upper floor, Bonner Hall, is used for storytelling and concerts. The space celebrates Eagan’s connection to Corella Allen Bonner, who grew up there before moving to Detroit as part of the northern migration.

Ultimately, Bonner and her late husband, Bertram, would experience much success and establish the Bonner Foundation. The foundation’s many initiatives include the Bonner Scholars Programs, of which C-N is a longtime partner.

Cirillo has gone on record to say that the Bonner organization is vital to what she calls her “community development ministry.”

She has said Bonner and its affiliated programs are “essential for communities like ours… Central Appalachia needs this for its small town and hinterland communities.” She asserts that such partnerships also help young volunteers “gain passage into the future they envision.”

It certainly did for one some 40 years ago.

Of Cirillo, Kennedy told News Sentinel writer Georgianna Vines, “She is one of the more powerful inspirations to me outside my family, making faith real and visible to make people’s lives better.”

 

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