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Mother’s Day profile: Elena Villafana-Sylvester, chief executive officer, (FEEL)

Elena Villafana-Sylvester is no stranger to a gruelling schedule balancing work and parenting. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant longer days and working on weekends to help the impoverished and the new poor as she heads the Foundation for the Enhancement and Enrichment of Life (FEEL), a registered charitable organisation.

Villafana-Sylvester, has three children with her husband of 19 years Lawrence. She has been so busy, she forgot Mother’s Day was this weekend. She had “planned distribution of masks in a community”.

This month is her tenth anniversary with FEEL which distributes foodstuff, clothing, shoes, hygiene, medical, household, school and disaster relief supplies to its civil society organisation partners and individuals across Trinidad and Tobago.

Villafana-Sylvester says she and Lawrence, were both “career oriented” and so waited until they were both “well grounded” in their careers before getting married and having children. “At the time we were managers at different banks,” Villafana-Sylvester said.

They are the parents of Ysabel 16, Xander 14 years and Maxx (girl) eight years. Villafana-Sylvester says becoming a mother made her more aggressive “career wise” because she believes her success is important for her children’s success. She has learned to appreciate and value the time spent with her family.

In 2006, a few months after Xander was born, she moved to Jamaica as VP of Retail and Electronic Banking at Scotia Bank, Jamaica.  She spent four years there. “I worked long hours,” she says. Lawrence returned to Trinidad in 2009 with Ysabel and Xander.  Villafana-Sylvester explains, “Unfortunately Scotia in Trinidad didn’t have an equivalent level position available for me and my husband’s career brought him back to Trinidad.  The plan was that I would come home once per month”.

Villafana-Sylvester says during the six months travelling back and forth, she cried every day. “Very soon I was flying home every weekend.  I would fly in on Friday and leave on Sunday or sometimes Monday morning. It was the most difficult period of my life.  I couldn’t imagine that I could miss my family so much.  My career was blossoming and I didn’t want to give up.  It was a big change for me to return to Trinidad and not have a role in Corporate.”  But there was also the insight that life goes on, “You need money to live, but money should not be your life.”

Villafana-Sylvester’s routine pre-COVID-19 was to get her children to school by 7 a.m. and then head to the office and pick them up in the afternoon to take them to their after-school activities. “This kept me out until 8 p.m. at least two days a week”, typically though it is until 6 p.m. Her father chips in to shuttle them home some days. “My kids help me a lot because they keep up with their work so I do not have to stress about that,” Villafana-Sylvester says.

One of her “biggest challenges” is cooking; a housekeeper helps with this. “I may be the worst cook that ever lived.  However, my 16-year-old loves to cook so she handles special occasions”. Last Christmas Ysabel prepared a dinner of pear glazed roast pork leg, golden yucan potatoes, green bean casserole with Italian sausage and Cornish hen.  “Yeah, she rocks!” Villafana-Sylvester says. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes in routine.  Ysabel and Xander do the “heavy lifting” helping their younger sister with her schoolwork.     Lawrence does the groceries and generally makes sure that everything is running smoothly at home. “It is a difficult time because I am working longer hours than ever.  There is so much to do,” Villafana-Sylvester says.

Before leaving for FEEL, she settles the children into their “school routines”—online classes etc. Ysabel is a student of St Joseph Convent, Port of Spain; Xander attends St Mary’s; and Maxx, Maria Regina Grade School.   She goes home in the afternoon, catches up with her children, takes a nap and resumes work on the computer and phone until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.

FEEL has four permanent staff and for the last three weeks, distributed bulk food supplies equivalent to 11,000 households. Villafana continues, “We are co-ordinating the distribution of masks across the nation, using teams in communities and going door to door to distribute the masks.” Her family has been very understanding of her workload.

In the past, the family usually went out for lunch for Mother’s Day but this year it is a meal at home. Villafana-Sylvester says, “My daughter has already planned her lunch menu.”

The basic philosophy guiding her family is this: “I am responsible for myself, my actions, my future; I am responsible to my family, my community and my country; I am grateful for all that I have”.  Guiding her approach to motherhood is a simple premise: “stick to your knitting”. She says, “I know what I am good at and focus on that… and well get help for everything else.” Every day she asks God for forgiveness and prays to be a better person.

There are many mothers in the country who are struggling particularly at this time. What will she say to them? “This Mother’s Day be thankful for life and for family.  Nothing else is really important.  Have fun and make do with whatever you have”.

In photo: Elena Villafana-Sylvester, chief executive officer, Foundation for the Enhancement and Enrichment of Life (FEEL) with her children (from left seated) Maxx, husband Lawrence, Xander and Ysabel (seated right).