When Gordon Cressy volunteered for a Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) assignment in Trinidad just over five decades ago, little did he envisage the impact he would have in the twin-island republic.
Nearly six weeks after his arrival, the 19-year-old Northern Secondary School part-time janitor was appointed general secretary of the Trinidad YMCA which celebrated its 50th anniversary last Sunday.
He ran a youth hostel, facilitated activities involving various cultural groups and helped establish the island’s first public swimming pool in which over 100,000 young people have learned to swim.
Cressy said the two years he spent in Trinidad and the YMCA experience changed his life, spawned his committed to youth work, diversity and equity and motivated him to pursue a fulfilling career in community service.
“I was paid 10 Trinidad & Tobago dollars a week along with my lodging which was free,” he recalled. “I rode a bicycle, went for roti in St. James and sat in the pit area in the movie theatre. The two years I was there changed my life forever and I am a better person for the whole experience.”
Inspired by his initial experience, Cressy – accompanied by his wife Joanne Campbell – went to Tobago six years ago to oversee the construction of the sister-island’s first YMCA and community swimming pool. They lived on the island for three years until 2011.
Former Trinidad YMCA president Howard Sabga encouraged Cressy to set up the facility.
“He said I should look at it as bookending my career as I started here and I am going to come and finish here,” Cressy, who was appointed George Brown College Foundation’s president a year ago, said. “Howard also said there was no money to pay me.”
Undaunted, Cressy and his wife raised funds in Canada and paid themselves $2,000 a month.
“We went to Tobago and started from scratch,” said Cressy who also set up a United Way in T & T. “The first six months, we met people, helped get a board together and got the Tobago House of Assembly to provide us with three acres of land. The government said the facility would cost TT$13 million and they would give us $6 million if we raised the rest.”
Through fundraisers and private donations, the first Tobago YMCA and public swimming pool opened in 2010 on time and on budget. Almost 1,200 kids and seniors use the facility weekly.
Though back in Toronto, Cressy and his wife are playing the lead role in the establishment of a second YMCA in Tobago. The facility in Kendal near Roxborough is almost 90 per cent completed.
“We communicate by Skype with the staff there every two weeks and we go down there four times a year to visit,” said Cressy, the Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund co-founder and Learning Partnership founding chief executive officer. “It will open for summer camp in July.”
Cressy, who with his wife own a home in Tobago that they rent out, said the twin-island republic is his spiritual home.
“Guys like Anthony Smart (former T & T attorney general) and Selwyn Ryan (a university professor) came to the University of Toronto for their education,” he said. “I could say I went to Trinidad for my education about life, people and things like warmth, kindness and friendliness. It was something quite spectacular and it stayed with me my whole life. It’s the place that I look back to as sort of changed the direction of my life.”
Cressy’s exceptional fundraising skills were again evident at the recent University of the West Indies (UWI) Toronto Benefit Gala when he managed to squeeze a significant sum of money out of entrepreneurs and philanthropists Raymond Chang – the event patron – and Michael Lee-Chin.
Jamaican-born Tessanne Chin, Season 5 winner of the U.S. talent contest, The Voice, was not expected to sing at the event where she was recognized with a Luminary Award.
“Ray thought he could get her to do a number and I asked Michael to play along,” said Cressy who was the gala’s auctioneer.
When the bidding stalled at $4,000, Cressy jumped into action.
“I asked Michael what was he doing and he joked it was too low,” said Cressy.
Lee-Chin then bid $10,000 for Chin to belt out a song and Chang matched it with an addendum – Chin would have to sing a second tune which she did. Lee-Chin offered another $20,000 for Chin to sing a third song.
The net result was $40,000 that will be used to deliver valuable scholarships to UWI students.
Yet again, Cressy had come through in a big way for the Caribbean.