Joanne Legair rose from her early baby-sitting job, when she first migrated to the United States in 1991, to become the sole honoree last Sunday at the gala Independence Luncheon and Awards Ceremony in Brooklyn, commemorating St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ 35th anniversary of political independence from Great Britain.
Legair, 50, a Richmond Hill, Kingstown native, was honored at Tropical Paradise Ballroom on Utica Avenue. The event was organized by the umbrella Vincentian group in the U.S., Council of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Organizations, U.S.A, Inc. (COSAGO) and the New York Consulate General.
“It’s a privilege to be the sole honoree today,” said Legair, who worked as a clerk with the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines before migrating, after receiving the award from COSAGO President Laverne McDowald-Thompson. McDowald Thompson is also president of the Brooklyn-based Chateaubelair Development Organization (CDO), and Legair is the vice president.
Legair told Caribbean Life that the honor was extra special in light of the fact that she elevated herself from baby-sitting for seven years in Manhattan to obtaining a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Long Island University, downtown Brooklyn.
She said she financed her associate degree in accounting from LaGuardia Community College in Queens, and partially did the same for her bachelor’s in business administration from Baruch College, both with the City University of New York, on her baby-sitting salary.
“You can use baby-sitting as a stepping stone; it does not define who you are,” she said. “And if you chose to be a baby-sitter (baby-sitting) as a career, it’s ok because you’re nurturing and educating children.”
The baby-sitting issue was the center of intense public discussion at home and in the Diaspora in recent weeks, with many nationals, primarily in the U.S., expressing outrage over remarks made on local radio by prospective Deputy New York Counsel General Sehon Marshall.
Marshall, who subsequently apologized for what many described as repulsive and condescending comments, also said that many nationals had left prestigious jobs at home to become “dog-walkers” in the U.S.
As the uproar intensified, Foreign Affairs Minister Camillo Gonsalves appealed to nationals in a town hall meeting in Brooklyn in September to give Marshall “a chance.”
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves subsequently said he was standing by the embattled would-be diplomat.
But some nationals in New York predict that the prime minister’s stance could have adverse repercussions on his administration should he still insist in appointing Marshall to the position.
In receiving the award, Legair, who has been engaged in community work for the past 17 years, urged nationals to give more of themselves to community service.
She said she brought along her grandson, Julius Legair, to the event so “he can learn a lesson in life – that you give, and you’ll be recognized in the end.”
She also alluded to what she said was a famous quote: “Everyone has an opinion, but opinion does not change the world; action does.”
In introducing Legair, attorney Curlina Edwards, CDO secretary, said: “This might come as a surprise to you because Joanne is not from Chateaubelair; she’s from town (Kingstown). And she’s worked as hard as anyone from Chateaubelair.”
McDowald-Thompson congratulated Legair for her “most justifiable tribute.”
Legair attended the Richmond Hill Government School, renamed the Thomas Saunders Secondary School, and later the Emmanuel High School in Kingstown, the Vincentian capital.
She developed a love for track and field, and would participate in up to 11 events in one track and field meet, earning the sobriquet “The Horse”. She was the captain of Green House and a member of the National Athletics Association training squad.
But Legair’s secondary education was cut short; she was forced to drop out after completing the Third Form.
Determined, however, to pursue her education, she attended evening classes and gained G.C.E O’ Level certification in accounting and English.
She became the first female to work at the “all men” Vector Control Division in the Ministry of Health and the Environment, as a field inspector, and was very instrumental in the employment of other females in that program.
After baby-sitting in New York, she worked for several leading business concerns, including Morgan Stanley, Bank of New York Mellon, AIG and GE.
She is currently employed as an accountant and operates a homed-based tax preparation business.
Besides CDO, Legair serves on a number of community organizations in New York.
She is, among other things, chairperson of COSAGO’s Culture and Sports Committee; treasurer of the Brooklyn-based St. Vincent and the Grenadines Diaspora Committee of New York and the Caribbean-American Cultural Group, Inc.; one of the founding members and an advisor to the Friends of Sion Hill, Inc.; and a member of the Steering Committee of the newly-formed Vincentian-American Chamber of Commerce.