Staying in Barbados beyond three months was not part of her script.
In the mind of this curious Australian, the tiny Caribbean island she knew very little about before arriving for the first time as a tourist in 2004 was simply one stop in a year long traveling adventure.
At least that is what Nicole Garofano thought. Fate had other plans.
Eight years later and the now former Future Centre Trust Administrative Director, who went from “Nicole who?” to a household name on environmental matters, returned home to Brisbane three Mondays ago feeling fulfilled.
Before she arrived here on an American Airlines flight, the only knowledge she had of Barbados was through another Australian who had a stint at the Future Centre and a young Bajan she met on a cruise.
He was the one whose words finally convinced her it was Barbados, not the British Virgin Islands, that she should visit. Sitting by a picnic table at the popular Rockley Beach facility three days before she left the island, Garofano told Barbados TODAY her story.
“I used to work in the travel industry, my background is not in environment so I spent 14 years looking and watching people go to all of these different places. I was fortunate enough to travel to some as well,” she said.
“I use to work in retail travel, I managed offices, I ran my own business doing accounting before I left, different roles, but essentially within the travel industry so while you are doing that you obviously become very aware of what the top five places in the world would be because you get introduced to a lot of places and the Caribbean was one of them and South America was another one.
“I chose South America, I chose the Caribbean, the East Coast of the US, which I hadn’t done before, but the bulk of the time, seven and a half months was in Central and South America.”
Eventually Garofano’s journey reached Barbados and it is here that plans changed. The catalyst was a trip to the Future Centre NGO she would eventually head.
“I just sort of asked ‘So what is it that you actually do here, can I help, do you need some help?’ and of course the garden was going then and they had to do little changes to exhibits and there were launching a golf tournament. I said ‘All right, well let me just come back and help out’, so I ended up doing that for two months,” she recalled.
“And then it was time to go because I still had six weeks until I finished my one-year world trip and so I left, and then about five weeks after I left the chairman at the time Dr. Basil Springer emailed and asked if I would come back for a longer contract.
“And so I tossed it up, because I had another job that I was looking at in the UK, but that one I could recreate because it was in the travel industry and it wouldn’t be too hard, but this one was the opportunity of a lifetime, in that if I said no to it then and knowing what I know now the opportunity wouldn’t have come by again.”
Much to the surprise and trepidation of her family, the salsa dancing fan “just threw caution to the wind and decided to come back, packed up all of my stuff at home into a smaller space and came back and worked for two years”.
“There were supportive, but it was just so far away. My dad was a traveller in his younger days so he was the most supportive, but yes it was really just the distance that they were worried about. They were excited that I was doing something that was different, but if anything happens, not that you ask for it, but it’s just so far to get home,” she remembered.
“The first two postings were actually sort of volunteer roles, so two years turned into four, and four turned into six and six has now turned into eight since I first got here so it’s been a journey. But it certainly was sign posts along the way that led me to make the decision to return.”
Garofano did not pretend to be an environmental expert neither when she started or now, and feels it is the variety of other skills she possessed that made Future Centre officials request her return.
“I have always been somebody who is able to pick up things fairly quickly so learning new software on computers I can pick up stuff like that, I can apply the management skills that I have to different situations, I am a creative person, I can make stuff, I like to paint, so I came back more for those skills than any environmental technical expertise, because I can tell you now I didn’t have, especially to this environment. I knew how we did things in Australia, but I didn’t know how things worked here in those early years for sure,” she said.
“It has taken a long time to get to where I am now but I am still not an expert, but it was really just recognising that because of my varied interests and my experiences in my previous jobs that it just all came together and I managed stuff.”
This was no fairy tale trip, however. The first five years of her time here were challenging, both in terms of keeping the organisation’s doors open and relating to people who saw her as an outsider.
“There have been a few that have said ‘What does she know coming here and telling us?’, but for the most part I am honoured and grateful that the general public of this country have been very supportive of what I have done,” she said.
“Every two years I had a new contract so at the end of two years it was like ‘this again’, but I kept coming back to unfinished business, feeling like if I left it would just stop, recognising that people didn’t have the same level of interest as they did when Dr. (Colin) Hudson ran the operation.
“I just really wanted to make sure that if I was going to put years of my mind and my interest and my energy into something that I wanted to try to do every thing I could to make it sustain itself, and now it feels like it’s there, and now I feel like I can go and do other things that will improve me as an individual rather than the Future Centre.”
As far as this friendly Aussie was concerned, she left Barbados with her mission accomplished, and she was happy with whatever small part she played in helping to change the attitudes some Barbadians have towards the environment.
“There are still some people who don’t seem to have respect and pride in the physical environments, but I think those numbers are reducing, and I think the numbers of people who do understand are certainly on the increase,” she said.
“There’s lot’s more to be done, and I recognise that I am leaving while there is lots more to be done, but I need to go and do some stuff for me and try and add some bits of paper to what I have been doing so that I can come back and do some other things maybe in the future.”
“The greatest satisfaction I think for me would be having the privilege to do community presentations to schools and seeing the enthusiasm in these young people who are the stewards of this country as it relates to everything in the country. But there is a great sense of encouragement that you get when you see the interest from these young people and wanting to take that information home to their parents,” the confessed fan of “trashy novels” added.
Garofano plans to purse a Masters in Environmental Sustainability, possibly at the University of Queensland, and is leaving Barbados with mixed emotions.
Her colleagues at the FCT were sad to see her go, as are numerous other Barbadians she would have forged friendships and other relationships with, but her family could not wait for her to arrive, she said.
“I am going home to my mother’s house. The FCT team is sad, they really can’t believe it yet, but they are very supportive of my choice because they recognise that I have done quite a lot for the centre and for Barbados, more so though Barbados has done a lot for me,” she said with a smile.
“My family, I had to set them straight because they expect I am going to be home for the next 50 years. . . . I think they will be happy to have me home for however long that may be. As you get older your parents get older and I guess it’s probably time for me to spend some time with each set in their retiring years.”
She will miss the sea, driving down Oistins Hill and enjoying the view, Barbados’ beautiful gullies, but most of all “the people that have embraced me, accepted me and supported me over these years, and just being able to live in such a beautiful country”. Garofano was also confident the FCT was in good hands and would continue to be an asset to Barbados.
“I am leaving with strategies in place that the Future Centre will continue, that programmes will continue to grow, the ones that we have now, that there are opportunities for new projects, there are opportunities for new partnerships with our funding partners and there will be new opportunities for people to get involved,” she said.
“That for me is actually a wonderful thing because when I had left previously it would have felt like it would just stop, but it’s going and the last three years have been the most productive and have certainly laid the groundwork to what it is now and I can go feeling confident that it’s going to flourish.” She also had a parting message for Barbadians.
“I would say whenever you can, take time to appreciate the abundance that is in nature, take some time to appreciate open spaces, appreciate the beauty that is your home and will always be your home, and do what you can to preserve it, teach your kids about how wonderful it is and how they should be, and keep fighting the fight because it’s all worth it.” firstname.lastname@example.org