Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Tuesday | November 11, 2008
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Walker stepping up Portland development
Camille Taylor, Contributor

Walker: I'm very strong on my views but you won't find me in conflict with people and you won't see in me in a loud quarrel. - photos by Norman Grindley/Acting Photography Editor

Stunned silence is perhaps the only way to respond when you hear Nellie Walker casually say she is "not a natural leader". When you consider that she is currently the branch manager for FirstCaribbean Bank in Port Antonio, founding president of the Lions Club of Port Antonio, chairperson of the Portland Resort Board, and a director of both the Portland Parish Development Committee and Portland Rehabilitation Manage-ment Ltd, 'leader' is the word that naturally comes to mind.

But, the woman who always seems to be in charge insists that she is "primarily a support person", who is content to "do the groundwork and help behind the scenes".

However, she tells The Gleaner, "If I see a need and there's no one to fill it, I will step in."

That's exactly what she did when she moved to Port Antonio in 2004 to manage the FirstCaribbean branch and saw the needs in both the capital town and the wider parish of Portland. Once the centrepiece of Jamaica's tourist industry, Portland has experienced a considerable downturn in fortunes in recent decades.

"Before I moved to Portland, the last time I had been there was in the '80s and, when I went back, I was amazed at the lack of development," Walker recalls. "To me, it looked so dilapidated. There was garbage on the streets, it was just awful. And, in a situation like that, you can either let it stay or you can help to turn around the town and that's what I decided to do."


Under her leadership, the Portland Resort Board secured financing from the Tourism Enhancement Fund for several development pro-jects, which should help to change the face of the parish.

One such initiative is the rehabilitation of the Musgrave Market in Port Antonio, which is scheduled to start this month. Also scheduled to begin this month is the renovation of the Neville Antonio Park, off which the resort board is modelling New Kingston's Emancipation Park. There are also plans to beautify the parish's entrance corridors, once the expansion work currently being carried out on its major roadways is completed.

In addition, through the Ministry of Tourism's 'Spruce Up Jamaica' programme, for which Nellie served as parish chairperson, Port Antonio got a major facelift. The resort board also worked with the National Solid Waste Management Authority to distribute garbage bins across Port Antonio and improve waste collection and disposal in the town.

"In recent times, when people come to Portland, they say the place looks clean, and that makes me pleased," Nellie says proudly.

Another source of concern for Walker is the growing population of homeless persons in Port Antonio, many of whom sleep on the sidewalks in the business district. In response, she and other concerned citizens have founded Portland Rehabilitation Management Ltd, which is currently renovating a building that will serve as a centre for street people.

Active member

The weight of professional responsibilities and extensive civic duties did not prevent Walker from jumping at the chance to spearhead the revival of the Lions Club of Port Antonio. Several years earlier, Walker had been an active member of the Lions Club of Mandeville, while she was assistant manager for the First-Caribbean branch in that town.

"That was a great club and we did a lot of huge projects," she recalls. "With very little money, we were able to build a health and civic centre by literally begging for everything. All we really paid for was labour and the only really big donation we got was from USAID."

Unfortunately, the Lions Club of Port Antonio had been one of the casualties of Portland's decline, as many professionals had moved out of the parish in search of economic opportunities.

Local club

With positive and fond memories of what the Lions had accomplished in Mandeville, Walker resisted entreaties from both the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs in Portland but enthusiastically answered the call when her fellow Lions asked her to get a local club going again.

"I like challenges and the need was there. A lot of schools and organisations would call the bank and ask if someone could give a talk at an event, or if we could make a donation to a project, and I thought if we had an active service club we could do some of these things," she reasons.

"We started recruiting members from 2006 and we struggled, but we got it together and our club was chartered on April 14 this year."

While her work with the resort board has allowed Walker to play a significant role in the drive to develop Portland's infrastructure, with the Lions Club her focus has been on improving the parish's health service. As she talks about the club's health-care projects, it is immediately evident that Walker has got to know the length and breadth of her adopted parish and is very in touch with the needs of the various communities.

Medical services

The new Port Antonio Lions Club has been having a series of health fairs in towns across the parish, making services such as blood-pressure and blood-sugar checks, HIV tests, Pap smears and eye screening available to citizens, who often have difficulty accessing medical services. The Lions are also working in conjunction with the Diabetes Association of Jamaica to set up a diabetic clinic, and plans are in place to renovate the paediatric ward at the PortAntonio Hospital, a project which should be completed by January 2009.

While she fully intends to see all the initiatives, which began under her watch, through to completion, Walker is not planning to seek a second term as club president.

"One of the things that a service club does is train people so nobody should be president for too long. I believe that other people should step up to the plate and, of course, I will be very supportive of the new president and whatever I can do to assist I will do."

Walker's willingness to lead where necessary, or play a supporting role where required, translates into an assertive but non-dictatorial leadership style, which she attributes to her late father.

Consensus builder

"He was a consensus builder and that's one of the things I took from him. I'm very strong on my views but you won't find me in conflict with people and you won't see in me in a loud quarrel."

She started at the bank shortly after graduating from the University of the West Indies with a degree in economics and management. Over 22 years there, she has worked in various departments and at several branches, including New Kingston, Manor Park and Half-Way Tree before serving as assistant manager of the Mandeville and New Kingston branches.

In 2003, she was asked to start the bank's Small Business Unit and was later appointed Manager of the Port Antonio branch, which has the largest savings base in the FirstCaribbean portfolio.

She still found time for postgraduate studies. In 2005, she earned an MBA from the Manchester Business School after completing a gruelling, four-year programme. The trick, she says, is balance, and she always makes time for family and friends. Also, she never gives up her hobbies.

"I like to read, I like to go to the beach, I like dancing and I love to have a drink with my friends and sit down and discuss politics."

Political office?

She is quick to emphasise that she has no ambitions for political office.

"I am not a politician," she says with quiet authority. "I don't have a problem taking on a role, where the need arises, because I want to see things happen, but I am not a limelight type of person.

"I only want Jamaica to look good and for people's lives to be improved. Those are the things that are important to me."

Does today's 'Women in Charge' story inspire you? Drop us a line by email at editor@gleanerjm.com or post to Women in Charge, c/o The Gleaner Company, 7 North Street, Kingston.

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