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Villafana-Sylvester was not motivated by ambition but by compassion. “I was very concerned about the reports of crime and general suffering coming out of Trinidad and Tobago. I felt I wanted to do more for my country, to reach the disadvantaged in our society. I didn’t like the path we were going down.”
She left her prestigious job and returned home, where she began working with United Way. She explored the idea of establishing an NGO that could help stem T&T’s slide into what she calls “an abysmal horror”. One thing she learned in Jamaica was that the problems of the country would not be solved if everyone moved away. “We have to fight to take back our country.”
The position of CEO at Feel became vacant, and instead of forming her own NGO, she took the opportunity of heading one that was already well established. Her charitable impulses are inbred. “My mother was from Moruga,” she reveals. “Every Christmas we prepared hampers and took them there to distribute.
For Eid, I would go to St Jude’s Home with my Muslim grandfather to feed children or make donations.”
Although she herself is Catholic, she hastens to dispel the notion that Feel is a Catholic organisation or only helps Catholics. “Feel works with persons of all faiths throughout T&T. We operate almost as an umbrella NGO to the others. We have over 125 NGO partners.”
Feel obtains bulk donations of foodstuff and supplies, which it then distributes to smaller organisations and individual families. “We work with anyone involved in poverty alleviation and education. Our goal is to empower people to have better lives.”
On a typical day, she reviews requests for support from other NGOs and meets with individuals at her office in Laventille. For individuals, needs assessments are based on their literacy levels, skills, employment, and the number of children they have. Although hampers are probably the first thing to come to mind, Feel also donates wheelchairs, basic medical equipment and household supplies. They then direct clients to other NGO partners who can help, train, educate or find them a job.
The individual meetings help inform Feel’s projects. Already arising from the information gathered, Feel has started a series of Empowerment Workshops, where participants are taught self esteem and family responsibility, and are encouraged to develop specific goals and to reach for them. The goals might be simple, for example a family living in a single room with an outhouse might seek only to find comfortable, sanitary accommodations. They are encouraged to apply for an HDC house, even if they know of others who haven’t succeeded. They are urged to get their children’s birth certificates, so they can go to school. Baby steps.
The payoff is emotional. “It’s almost selfish, the joy you feel when you give a food hamper to a mother and she cries because it’s that important to her family…I don’t think you can measure that.”
She’s seen the entire range of responses from her clients, from those who seize the opportunity to change their circumstances to others who, like drowning men, choose not to fight the waves but to sink below them and inhale. Some are willing to sit with her and write out an action plan and act on it. Others are full of excuses why they shouldn’t or can’t get a job. She is firm with these; if they’re looking to use Feel as a crutch, they’ve come to the wrong place.
On the other hand, she tells stories of people she has helped find their feet, and who return to express their gratitude and offer to pack hampers or help others. “I think there’s a lot of good in us still, where people look out for each other.”
The personal changes she has experienced in leaving her prestigious banking job have affected everyone in her family, especially her children, ages five and seven, who’ve had to adapt to a new country, and to a very different lifestyle. While living in Jamaica, they had grown used to weekend trips to Miami or stays in luxurious North Coast hotels, but they’ve taken the culture shock in their stride. Her daughter understands the work her mother is trying to do, and even offers to give up her toys and clothes to other little girls who need them. The family trait of compassion is passed on.
Ultimately, the job doesn’t feel that much different from Villafana-Sylvester’s old one. “In banking I did research and developed products to enrich the lives of our customers, and in Feel I do the same thing. The word ‘empowerment’ is at the heart of what I do, and why I’m so happy to be part of Feel.”
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