By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Holy Trinity Arouca parishioner Esme Raphael was awarded the Public Service Medal of Merit Gold for outstanding and meritorious service in cooperative and credit union development, a field she has been involved in for 60 years.
Raphael is currently a Director on the Board of VENTURE Credit Union, and Chair of the Board’s Governance Sub-committee. She is a member of the Co-operative Credit Union Movement Technical Committee, and Chair of the Audit Committee of the TT Credit Union Deposit Insurance Fund.
Getting into the credit union
Esme Raphael was quick to state that being given a national award was not just about her own efforts but those who gave her the opportunity to enter the field.
She got into the credit union sector while she was working at Federation Chemicals Ltd (FEDCHEM), located in Savonetta.
She explained FEDCHEM hired former employees of the oil company TEXACO and they brought with them the credit union idea. Raphael, the executive assistant to a manager was on her way home when a colleague invited her to an Annual General Meeting of the credit union. She was nominated and afterwards elected to FEDCHEM’s Credit Union Board of Directors. This was in 1961. The credit union comprised staff and non-staff.
“In those days ,there was this class structure kind of thing; we still have the class structure today, but it was more…visible at that point in time. Then, the non-staff would threaten you when they don’t get a loan and that kind of thing,” she said.
The management of the credit union eventually passed to the labourers. However, issues arose. “After a few years of operation 1962–1968, members’ private business was not kept confidential as it should. On Wednesday, they will have a credit union committee meeting and then by Thursday, everybody knows who applied for a loan and that kind of thing.”
Raphael said GRASTAFF (Growing Rapidly and Steadily Towards A Sound Financial Future) Cooperative Credit Union was established in 1969 by aggrieved persons. The new credit union was only for employees living and working in Port of Spain.
She said credit unions filled a “gap” at a time when not everyone could access a bank loan. “People don’t like to talk about it, but I talk about it because that gave me a sense of wanting to help,” she said.
In 1969, she applied to register the credit union but was told by the Commissioner of Cooperative Development that a credit union with less than 300 members—it had just 64 members—was not sustainable. GRASTAFF continued operations.
A turning point was the Black Power revolution of 1970. Raphael said after this event Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams placed more emphasis on social structures in the country.
Raphael said GRASTAFF and another credit union were registered “to build confidence and give the marginalised, people of modest means, in society support and give them a voice”.
FEDCHEM was taken over and became Hydro Agri Trinidad Ltd, then GRASTAFF and FEDCHEM were merged to form VENTURE Credit Union, March 3, 1997. “And here we are today,” Raphael said.
She is “very passionate” about the work of credit unions. Asked what qualities she possessed which led to her involvement in various credit union enterprises she responded, “I do not have any identifiable qualities that propelled me into different positions”.
She was however, drawn to the credit union philosophy of ‘People Helping People’ for the well-being of the wider co-operative community in wealth creation. Whenever she was asked to be part of anything dealing with the credit union, she responded positively. She said, “My representation at different credit unions and secondary bodies indicated my keen interest in what was taking place in the co-operative movement.”
Raphael reiterated that any milestones achieved was not hers alone, “because the Board must make the major decisions, one cannot attribute the accomplishment as his/her own hence it is unfair for me to claim such honour.”
She recommended the establishment of a Children’s Foundation within VENTURE in 2006. The main objective was to organise camps during the August/September vacation for children 7 to 10 years whose parents could not afford.
She initiated the merger of the Arouca Credit Union with VENTURE in 2009 and later, the opening of a branch of VENTURE in Arouca thereby increasing its overall membership.
Raphael’s input has not gone unnoticed over the years. VENTURE sponsors the Esme Raphael Bursary at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine to a final year student pursuing Management Studies, and she has received many awards.
Servanthood – a way of life
She remains true to the motto of helping people. Raphael said retirement for some means no hustling to work and no stress but for her it’s “closing of a book and the opening of another”.
A neighbour asked her to be officer manager for the non-governmental organisation, Creative Parenting for the New Era. “She valued my competence and efficiency and was of the opinion having me on her team would be a collaboration of joy and believed that it was an intervention from God.”
This NGO has a mission to “explore, share and create culturally appropriate tools and skills for creative parenting in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean”. Raphael received an award on her tenth year with them for efficient and dedicated service.
Raphael is active in her parish community. Since 1986 she has taught children preparing for First Communion and serves in different ministries including Hospitality and Social Events.
Persons who serve on the executive of the credit unions are volunteers. Raphael learned volunteerism from her father, Bonifacio. “He was a county councillor, village councillor, social worker, Pension Board member and more. He organised ‘gayaps’ [from the indigenous Karinya (Carib) word ‘kayapa’ – to describe the tradition of people getting together to complete a big task] to build homes for the needy, established sports for the village: cricket for men and women, collaborated with the Scout leader, Sherman Ramsingh and others, birthday club activities, Carnival plus beauty queen pageants and more.”
From volunteering in the credit union, Raphael said she learned: “There is a dire need to educate the marginalised in our society. Many persons are unaware of the social services available in T&T. The co-operative sector is a vehicle for the transformation of an individual with credit unions/co-operatives as part of the solution for creating a better and fairer society.”
Raphael’s Catholic faith gave the insight to live servanthood. “[It is] a virtue espoused by Jesus, as fulfilling the purpose God has for me by directing my paths to an organisation whose operating principles are founded in the philosophy of ‘people helping people’ to achieve a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities. I have come to understand more deeply how my spiritual work and work in the community are not separate but one integrated expression of living in God’s will.”