Quiet heros

Gloria Edwards spent decades teaching Belizean youngsters to express themselves through the arts. Mavis Williams raised 25 adoptive Caymanian children

Cynthia Stanko. Photograph courtesy FirstCaribbean International BankGloria Edwards. Photograph courtesy FirstCaribbean International BankMavis Williams and some of her children. Photograph courtesy FirstCaribbean International Bank

Karen Mahy calls FirstCaribbean International Bank’s Unsung Heroes programme “dear to my heart” in one of her emails, and this intrigues me early on in our correspondence. Not because I don’t believe in corporate social conscience — or that I’m sceptical about the existence of such a beast. Mahy is FirstCaribbean’s corporate communications manager; she joined the bank in January 2005. That means she has also been responsible for the promotion and profile of Unsung Heroes.

But her spin-doctor position and relative newness aside, what strikes a genuine chord is that her conviction is apparent on the page — or screen, as it were — in that common enough phrase. And it clearly translates when you talk to her in person or over the phone.

“FirstCaribbean is very strong about community involvement,” says Mahy. “A lot of effort goes into Unsung Heroes. It’s our flagship community relations project.”

Unsung Heroes was launched in October 2003 on FirstCaribbean’s first anniversary. (The bank was the result of the merger of CIBC West Indies Holdings Limited and Barclays Bank PLC.) The programme was successfully piloted in Belize, the Bahamas, Barbados, and St Lucia. Now region-wide, it is open to the other 12 territories in which FirstCaribbean operates: the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Netherlands Antilles, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Grenada and Carriacou, Anguilla, Dominica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The idea behind Unsung Heroes, in the words of FirstCaribbean International Holdings chairman Michael Mansoor, was to “search . . . for those dedicated persons who serve their communities without consideration for reward or acclaim, but who are respected as community enablers.” The criteria are straightforward: an individual must be extraordinarily dedicated to social improvement, must be a Caribbean person, and must be virtually unrecognised by the media for his or her contribution. In addition, the cause must be one that can benefit from greater exposure, and he or she must be willing to participate in the programme’s PR if selected.

In other words, Unsung Heroes recognises the contributions of those who use their abilities for good away from the big, bright lights of fame, and whose values echo those of the bank’s outreach programmes.

“When we looked at the Caribbean, we came across a number of people who weren’t receiving any attention, or supplemental funds [for their causes], and we wanted to find a way to honour these people,” says Mahy. “Our eyes are really open to the number of people performing selfless acts.”

Unsung Heroes is a yearlong event. The whole process starts in February and culminates with an awards ceremony the following February for the year’s recipients.

The judges for 2005 were “overwhelmed by the number” of deserving submissions from the country committees charged with choosing their finalists from hundreds of nominees. This year’s panel comprised Sir Neville Nicholls, the former president of the Caribbean Development Bank; Sir Shridath Ramphal, the former Commonwealth secretary-general; Sir George Alleyne, current UWI chancellor; Trinidadian journalist Jones P. Madeira; Grenadian gender studies scholar Eudene Barriteau; and Marie McCormack, a former Jamaican High Court judge. From a potential total of 24 finalists, they had to choose one winner and two runners-up.

Gloria Edwards, the Unsung Hero for 2005, is a retired primary school teacher and principal from Belize. The runners-up are Cynthia Stanko, who founded a child special needs programme in the Bahamas, and Caymanian Mavis “Gramma” Williams, a long-time foster parent to many children. Edwards will receive a US$7,500 donation to her cause. Stanko and Williams each receive a US$5,000 donation.

What FirstCaribbean gets, notes Mahy, is a sense of accomplishment that money can’t buy.

“We get a lot out of it in terms of feel-good — forget about the exposure the bank gets. It brings the region together, but, stronger than that, it brings the country together in terms of our branches and the people on the ground.”

Employing 3,100, the bank is the largest locally listed in the region, with 100 retail branches and some US$8 billion in assets. According to Mahy, a healthy portion of the bank’s profits go back into the community it serves. FirstCaribbean poured a total of US$340,000 into its Unsung Heroes 2005 programme.

“‘We give you more’ is one of our slogans. ‘Get there together’ is another. I think Unsung Heroes embodies all that the bank stands for. It really salutes and honours those persons in our society who do what they do without any thought of Unsung Heroes. There’s nothing like it in the Caribbean.”

FirstCaribbean’s other noteworthy outreach initiative is its Adopt-a-Cause sponsorship programme. Every country, through its branches, is encouraged to lend assistance to a school, a seniors’ home or some other worthy cause of their choosing.

The bank was heavily involved in recovery efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. “We’ve even partnered with CDERA [Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency]. A lot of our funds were diverted to regrouping, restoring,” says Mahy. “We had to extend ourselves to our staff, but also to the wider community.”

We believe that the civilising activities of these citizens make our communities and countries a better place. Without them our society would be immeasurably poorer. The work example of these ‘Unsung Heroes’ gives us pride in the present, hope for the future and, most importantly, they are living examples of the best we can be.”

These words come from FirstCaribbean’s press notes on the Unsung Heroes programme. They may sound like lovely corporate fluff, calibrated to elicit thoughtful admiration and awed pause. But there is a quality to the expression that almost demands its owner walks the walk, not just talks the talk.

“The bank as a whole is very community-relations oriented,” says Mahy, gently reiterating the point. Before I have time to comment, she adds: “Yes, we are a bank; yes, we are in the business of making money. But we do strive to give back to the community.”
Much like the Unsung Heroes they champion.

NEW WAYS OF SEEING

Hero Gloria Edwards

She travels the villages of Belize, looking for more children to teach.

Gloria Edwards does this every day of the week, much as she did for 41 years as a teacher, then as principal of Grace Chapel Primary School in Belize City. She does a school a week. She does this using her own means, thinking all the while that her time and money and efforts are well spent.

Motivating children, teaching them new and creative ways of seeing themselves and expressing their world, has been her life’s work. Edwards’s subjects are the arts: performing, visual, dramatic. During her tenure at Grace Primary, Edwards, now 70, helped to establish the Pantastic Steel Band for children, and won gold awards in the National Children’s Festival of Arts.

In 2002, two years after retiring, she started her rural outreach programme. It has ever been her belief that the arts help children become well-rounded adults, and that every child, whether city or rural, deserves what the writer Grace Paley once described as “the open-ended opportunity of life”.

The children have responded well to the challenge; it has been as much a journey for them as for her. With recent government assistance, though, Edwards’s programme may go as far across Belize as she and others like her are willing to take it.

RAISING A VILLAGE

Runner-up Mavis Williams

It seemed the right thing to do.

Thirty-five years ago, when Mavis Williams looked around her community in the Cayman Islands, she realised there were many children in need of special attention. Many came from troubled homes, drug-addicted mothers, teenaged parents. They were from every level of society, and ranged in age from eight days old to eighteen years. Williams did the only thing she could think of: she started to take these children into her home, to raise them herself.

She had a husband and three children of her own. When her husband died four years into her mission, she could have closed her doors. But for the last 35 years Williams — affectionately known as “Gramma” — has raised over 25 children who are not her own. She made it her business to take responsibility for these young lives, to nurture them with love, to see to their education, to show them as much of the world outside their home as she could afford. Some have gone on to be policemen and bankers, understanding the value of making their own contribution to society.

Along the way, 72-year-old Williams received some help from local businessmen and her church. And her daughter Pat has become a registered foster parent. Some people say it takes a village to raise a child, but it all starts with one individual.

THE DREAM SHARER

Runner-up Cynthia Stanko

Her dream wasn’t what most of us would embrace.

From a young age, Cynthia Stanko knew she wanted to work with children with mental disabilities. At a time when proper education and care for those with such challenges was scarce to non-existent, Stanko wanted to prove what is today increasingly taken for granted: that disability is not inability, and all children have vast stores of potential. Just as she wanted to make a contribution to her community, she wanted to show these children also could — and should — be allowed to.

In 1985, Stanko founded the Bahamas Infant Stimulation Programme. This was with the assistance of the Bahamas National Council for Disability, but the actual funding of the programme was left to her.

The programme was set up to assist children from birth to three years. There were some lean days in the beginning. The need for the programme, however, would guarantee its survival and its success. Parents with special needs children began to seek Stanko’s advice, and she worked with parents to develop her programme for them and their children.

Stanko adopted two special needs children from her programme. By showing them they could make not only a contribution to their country but a real difference, she has made her dream theirs.