ON her last day as president of the Rotary Club of Kingston East and Port Royal, Atasha Bernard smiled as she admired the new playground that the service club had built for an early childhood institution in Cane River, Bull Bay. She took a moment from overseeing the project to reflect on how far she had come since living there, and how good it felt to be able to give back something tangible to the community. Had it not been for the money that the people of Cane River, among other places, left in envelopes at Christmas time for the garbage collectors, she would not have been able to afford higher education, to now be the chief financial officer at Lasco Financial Services, and outgoing president of the service club.
“Cane River is the community that my father is from,” Bernard, now 34, shared with All Woman. “I didn't have any role models of people going to university and climbing career ladders around me, but my father drove the garbage truck from Sunday to Sunday. Those funds that each household would put out for them at Christmas, that is what helped to pay my school fees.”
She reckoned that that was a huge sacrifice for him, but this, she said, was one of the first examples of finding opportunities in adversity that she had.
Her life story reflects this mission, too. Bernard is no stranger to adversity, but even as a child she always sought solutions, and would stop at nothing until she overcame.
“My mother and father separated when I was much younger, and my mother was from St Thomas,” she shared. “I was living in between there and Cane River, and I remember sometimes having to leave home at 4:00 am to get to primary school.”
But even at that age she found an opportunity. Bernard, who showed early academic prowess, was allowed to sit the Common Entrance Exam in the fifth grade, and matriculated to Seaforth High School in St Thomas.
“It wasn't a traditional high school and I remember people saying to me that 'nothing good comes out of Seaforth',” she recalled. “I used that as my motivation to find an opportunity to show that something good can come from the school.”
It was at Seaforth High that she was introduced to accounting, realised how much she loved it, and set her heart on becoming a chartered accountant.
“But I did an accounting exam in grade nine and the grades were horrible,” she said, chuckling. “I said to myself, 'If I want to become a chartered accountant I will have to get better grades'. So I did.”
Though she could not get into the accounting programme at the University of Technology with her grades after she graduated with seven Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) passes, Bernard was not deterred. She enrolled at Excelsior Community College, where, funded mainly by her father's earnings as a sanitation worker, she read for an associate degree in business studies.
“Then I went straight to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) programme,” she recalled. “I started it in 2006, and within three and a half years I finished ACCA at 23 years old.”
During this time Bernard worked at BDO International, where she spent almost five years, and landed her first management role at the age of 24.
“During my tenure there, at one point I received a double promotion. I moved from a semi-senior three to semi-senior one because of my performance,” she said proudly.
She then moved on to Lasco Financial Services, where she has been steadily climbing for most of the last decade.
“There was an opportunity for a financial accountant role,” she remembered. “I took it and in about three years I was promoted to group financial controller. Four years later I was promoted to chief financial officer.”
The last decade has not only been one of career success, but also one of service and leadership achieved through the Rotary Club of Kingston East and Port Royal.
“In 2010 I was babysitting for a friend in Harbour View,” Bernard shared. “The child's mother said that if the baby got fussy I could walk to the nearby church for help, as the grandmother was there.”
While walking to find comfort for the fussy toddler, Bernard came across the service club that was having a health fair in the community.
“I asked how I could become a part of the Rotary network and one of the members took my number,” she remembered fondly. “By the following year I was Rotarian of the year.”
Bernard found a light for herself by holding a torch for others. She would serve on various committees within the club, then ascend to various leadership roles, including treasurer, vice-president, then president in July of last year.
It was while at an international convention in Canada that, while listening to a Rotarian speak passionately about popcorn, she started her presidential planning. Her mission and campaign slogan, was to POP — use 'Passion to create an Opportunity for People'.
“Even now I am known as the popping past president,” she laughed. “But honestly, even my journey as president was born out of being able to find an opportunity during adversity.”
Bernard divulged that she almost turned down the presidency because of personal issues when it was her time. But she told herself that even if she could not find an opportunity for herself at the moment, she could use her passion to create opportunities for others. And so she did.
“Based on Rotary norms, each president takes on a major project,” she explained. “The one I took on was a basic school in Cane River that was trying to meet the Early Childhood Commission standards by having a playground.”
It was no small task. With a budget of nearly a million dollars needed to undertake the project, she set about soliciting sponsorship and raising funds throughout the year. On June 30 the project was finally completed.
“It really felt good to know that I came back into the community and gave something,” Bernard, who now has a daughter of her own, said. “My father collected garbage so that I could someday be able to give something valuable back. It goes to show that you can always make something good out of nothing. There is always an opportunity in adversity.”