Sun | Jan 21, 2018

Opal Clarke - Breaking barriers, managing through training

Published:Monday | July 18, 2016 | 12:10 AM
Opal Clarke
Opal Clarke
Opal Clarke:… “The struggles I went through, the money and food that I couldn’t find for a long time, the opportunities I risked going after…all that I would do over again”.
ATL Senior Service Technician Everton Ffrench (left) takes a closer look at a refrigerator with Opal Clarke, a former student trainee on the trajectory to management with Appliance Traders.
Opal Clarke (centre) checks in on Junior Technician in the Appliance Traders Ltd. Service Department Mark Whyte (left) and his senior colleague Everton Ffrench as they make repairs to an air-conditioning unit.

By her 16th birthday, Opal Clarke had already bounced around six homes, endured a long separation from her parents and lived through the loss of two grandparents with whom she spent most of her childhood. Following the death of the family matriarch, life for the then 12-year-old began to change.

"I had no relative that was in a position to become my guardian in the parish I was living at the time. That meant entering into foster care with a family from a nearby district - and those first two years were rife with challenges," disclosed Clarke. "Outside of adhering to very strict rules, being subjected to extra household tasks others shunned and facing financial struggles, I was constantly told by one member that I would not turn out to be anything good," she said.

The next years, subsequent to her 14th birthday, she passed under the roofs of her Physical Education teacher as well a lady employed to the cafeteria at the Manning's School, which she attended - realities she kept hidden from schoolmates. As it seemed fate would have it, both Mannings guardians were called away to North America. The only option then was for Clarke to return to her birthplace, Kingston, and transfer the Tivoli High School, going between the homes of both biological parents. Upon completion of eleventh grade, came the news - financial support for her education would no longer be forthcoming.

"If you asked me the movie genre I thought my life was shaping up to be, I'd have said drama, comedy, adventure...and maybe a little horror," she shared wistfully. And it would be a somewhat startling compendium for people who now only see a young professional who appears to take the world in strides (literally). She is always on-the-go, a bit hard to keep up with, but marked by a defined purpose as she now executes her duties at Appliance Traders Limited (ATL).




"My past helped to shape me in many ways," she professed. "It pushed me to prove that I could be so much more. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I always saw myself standing in the shoes of a president, a lecturer - any principal of an organisation," she added.

Armed with that vision, tenacity and five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects, Clarke entered the Appliance Traders Group as a HEART Trust NTA trainee immediately after high school. She was subsequently contracted as a telephone operator and within a year, gained permanent employment in a similar capacity. Over the next eight years, she grew to a data entry clerk then cashier within the Accounts department before what she deemed her "greatest professional achievement" materialised in the form of the company's Management Trainee Programme in 2014.

"Two years ago, before I entered the programme, after having applied for an ATL/Sandals Masters scholarship, I was at a point where I wasn't sure what direction my career would take so I am most grateful that the company believed and invested in me," she said of the Sandals/ATL Group's succession planning initiative for promising young leaders across the Caribbean. "I have received extensive experience in a lot of technical areas across our appliance, automotive, publications and hospitality divisions. I also find that I am now better at decision making and I have a whole new perspective on management," Clarke expressed.

Today, Clarke, a dynamo in her own right, has amassed a Bachelor's Degree, Associate Degree, HEART Trust NTA qualifications and numerous ATL acquired professional certifications. It, however, was not an easy journey and she often reminisces on her one-year hiatus from university on two occasions as she either struggled to save the tuition or focused on the birth of her now six-year old daughter. "Thankfully I had strong family support with my child." Then, with her eyes lost for a moment, she admitted "There were times, though, that I had to beg people to sponsor my lunch. Some of the most painful days were the countless ones when I'd walk to work from home, then walk from work to school, then walk from school back home at nights in order to salvage enough funds to put towards my studies. Whenever I set a goal for myself, I remember my grandma and how she encouraged me to always aim higher. I definitely had my end goal in mind," recalled Clarke.

Clarke reluctantly confessed to not always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel - shedding tears, but always "praying about everything," she said. Her journey, she added, has pushed her to want to help others become the best versions of themselves. While lauding the Sandals and ATL Group for its provision of an avenue for young people to gain job exposure in Northern and Eastern Caribbean countries as management trainees, the 28-year old, a described humanitarian at heart said she has also used the opportunity to impact real community change.

"One fundamental understanding each programme participant must have is that charity and outreach are core parts of what this is about," she posited. "Having benefited from charity myself and garnered a greater sense of care and empathy towards others, I was all too happy to be given a platform to lead programmes of my own," said Clarke. To her credit, Clarke conceptualised and executed a free health fair for women during a brief stint training in St. Lucia and on returning to Jamaica, collaborated with two other management trainees for a Christmas project which saw several items donated to a Webster Memorial Church-operated senior citizens home.

"The satisfaction I get from helping people, dealing with people, is indescribable so I'm loving every moment that I can come to work and have direct impact. Here, I have been given a great opportunity to build on something - whether it's in the community or assisting in the change process across the business," Clarke shared. As she approaches the end of the training period, the young professional present responsibilities include supervising five of the staff members in the Service department of the retail giant's hub.

To ATL Sales Executive, Tracea Carr, Clarke is "an inspiration, adept, focused and always smiling. The things she endured and the way in which she capitalised on the opportunities she received, inspired me to continue my formal training and earn my degree as well."

"The life-changing decade I have spent with ATL has not only developed me as a professional, but as a person," stated Clarke. "My grandparents and many of the people I have encountered taught me to dream big and keep pushing against the odds. The struggles I went through, the money and food that I couldn't find for a long time, the opportunities I risked going after...coming from a place in my life where I used to walk to access education to a point where I have even flown to the States through my involvement in company sports... all that I would do over again because it brought me to where I am now. Your life can go places when you have faith, trust in God and are blessed to find even a few people that believe in you," she concluded.