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By Lara Pickford-Gordon

Nigel Phillip admits he was irresolute about taking on the position of President of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP).

It is no secret that the Society, a Catholic-run non-governmental organisation, had setbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic. There was a drastic drop in donations, fundraising and home visits stopped, demonstrations by staff for outstanding salaries made the news.

The SVP also had to respond to findings contained in a Joint Select Committee report to Parliament on use of funds in relation to the Centre for Socially Displaced Persons. This project implemented by the SVP was halted by the State on September 1, 2022.

Phillip said he was approached to vie for the post of President by SVP members who felt he would be a good candidate. At the time, he was about to travel abroad so did not dwell too much on the suggestion.

As the nomination edged closer to reality, he consulted his family. Phillip works in the Division of Health, Wellness and Family Development, Tobago House of Assembly, as a Gender Affairs Officer.

Although he was reminded of his “full plate”, his family assured they would support whatever decision he made. He agreed to being nominated but also said, “I was praying for it not to happen. And it happened, I was the only candidate and I said ‘Wow! I am the only candidate, is there something I am not seeing here?’ So, I said to myself ‘Lord, I don’t really want this’”.

Even after being elected, Phillip was cautious and even thought of giving it up, but having received good advice, decided to “give it a try”.

Interviewed at the SVP’s head office, Duncan Street on October 13 he acknowledged the task was daunting. It was his second week in office, and he was sorting himself out and giving much thought to the way forward.

He joked about sprouting greys. Phillip is bald. While conveying some trepidation, at the SVP’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) October 2, he believes, “If God chose me there must be a reason why…and He will send His servants to guide me through this process.”

Aware that the organisation’s membership is aged, he told the AGM of his intention to focus on young persons. “I said in the AGM young people have to be given consideration. It is a new era meaning how things were done 20 years back, things have to be done different in this present time, and in an era where we have a lot of technology, there is a lot we can learn from young people to bring to the table to take the Society forward or to another level.”

Youth empowerment is high on the agenda and outreach has begun to youth groups locally and internationally. He reported that in the two weeks of the new administration, links have been made with overseas youth groups and invitations received for training and visits. One of his first appointments was Shastrina Sinanan as SVP Youth Coordinator.

Phillip said a restructuring exercise will be done to achieve “the new face” of the SVP. Under consideration: How can the SVP be more effective in its work? How will the buildings of the Society be upgraded? He mentioned financial viability and accountability.

The SVP celebrated 165 years in T&T this year. Phillip said it has a mandate is to serve the poor and vulnerable in society. Apart from work in parishes through its Conferences, it provides “affordable care to persons who cannot afford” and operates the St Andrew’s Home for the Aged, Belmont; San Fernando Home for the Aged; Finbar Ryan Geriatric Home, Diego Martin; Rigsby Pius Charles Home, Arima; Home for the Aged, Mason Hall, Tobago. The SVP manages the Cyril Ross Children’s Home for children with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).

Phillip said the Society cannot operate as it did 20 years ago. He highlighted the rate charged per resident for care adding that persons who cannot afford were allowed to stay for free.

“We depend on donations to care for these persons. We have staff to pay, we have food to buy, and we have maintenance etc.,” Phillip said. “You think $2,600 to $3,000 in some cases, now in 2022, can provide care for residents when you have institutions charging $5,000 – $6,000 and up for care? So, when you look at that, it could never be cost effective.”

Pointing to the pension support to senior citizens given by the State, he said some relatives tried to cheat the system. “They put away their loved ones, they try to pay minimal, and they keep the rest of the money. Sometimes elderly in our society and disabled are cheated out of their fair share of their earnings to go into proper care.” He added that the SVP service was more cost effective than if relatives had to pay for home care.

Structures will be implemented so the SVP finances will be in order, “without question”. Phillip said the head office needs to know what was going on at Conferences because the President has to give account for anything that happens.

Not mincing words, he said, “If Conferences decide to go on their own and deal with their own finances then you remove the name SVP from your Conference if you cannot comply with the structure.”

He disclosed in the past, the SVP head office could not access accounts of Conferences after signatories had died. Phillip said, “It must have a structure, how things are streamlined for accountability.”

A new organisational chart will be created. The term restructuring has a negative connotation being associated with staff cuts. Asked what it meant with the new executive, Phillip replied, “That is the reality, but what I could say, we don’t have mass, most of our assistants here are volunteers, professional volunteers who had professional life they retired from and are working with the organisation and that is how we are able to provide the necessary assistance to get our records where they are supposed to be.”

Phillip touched on SVP properties and the need for maintenance and repairs. Those under the Secretariat will be reviewed for the feasibility of renting or leasing to generate funds.

The SVP is a voluntary organisation however, this has also been declining. Phillip observed people do not volunteer as before but look at what they can get. For the Society to move forward, volunteers with “selfless intention” are needed.

Phillip has been a member of the SVP for 12 years and President of the St Joseph RC Conference, Tobago for the past four years working with “vulnerable groups on the ground”.

The Conference is responsible for one elderly Home. He said along with the vice-president they challenged themselves to deal with one aspect of upgrade for the home annually.

In 2022, changing beds at the Home was the priority. They attained 85 per cent of the target. Phillip disclosed that the fees for the Home were increased, and this allowed salaries for caregivers to be enhanced and paid on time, the residents received their meals, and the environment was kept beautified. Some money is put aside for severance. Phillip would like to see the same for facilities in Trinidad.

Hopes for the SVP

“We need to further embrace who we are and how unique, valuable and blessed to be chosen in carrying out the mandate of providing an essential service to the less fortunate,” Phillip said.

He understands some members have grown weary, possibly due to age. This is why he wants to get youths to take up service as he observed “youths today know very little about service or just refuse to serve”.

He would like to see a more vibrant SVP with individuals giving their skills, whether in accounting, engineering etc. in service to projects. “My hope is that we become more spiritual and grounded in prayer and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us and change our hearts if it’s not in the right place.”

A family man

Phillip describes himself as a family man, with a beautiful wife Allana, and two lovely daughters, Analya, 12 years, and Anya, 6 years. His job at the THA involves responding to matters of gender-based violence. “I do a lot of work in that area professionally, and also as a counsellor, so I do a lot of work with young men and boys, children,” he said.

Phillip’s involvement traces back to childhood. He grew up in Trinidad with his parents (his father was Anglican, and mother was Catholic) and eight siblings, four boys and four girls. He was the youngest boy. “Our values were basically Christian values; we were always in church. We were also placed in different groups in the church. I was in the youth group.”

“I was christened under Anglican rites at the Curepe Anglican church, where I was in love with the youth ministry,” Phillip said. Later, as an adult he purchased a dog from Dianne Benjamin, and they became friends. She introduced him to the Catholic Church.

He began attending Mass during his lunch hour at Living Water Community or at Holy Rosary RC church, Port of Spain. Benjamin introduced him to the Eternal Light Community (ELC), Tunapuna, and he became involved with this ecclesial community and St Charles RC, Tunapuna parish. Phillip said he has been moulded by the ELC.

“I was part of the ELC youth group a number of years. After the youth leader moved on, I became the youth leader.” Phillip did the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and became Catholic.

He attended the World Youth Day 2002 in Canada and participated in youth programmes in Curaçao, St Lucia and Grenada and attended many retreats locally.

He spent ten years in Tunapuna before moving to Tobago in 2012. He joined the St Joseph RC church, Scarborough in 2013 and became the vice-president of the SVP Conference the following year. He was elected President in 2017.

Phillip presently is in the men’s group and migrant ministry of the St Joseph RC, as well as being a lay minister.