Vincentian triumphs over adversity
Special Feature
October 22, 2010
Vincentian triumphs over adversity

I am Ayanna Baptiste

At the age of 12, the average girl would be singing along to songs by the latest pop sensation, be stationed in front of the computer chatting with friends, or whispering to her best friend about a cute boy in school.

Ayanna Baptiste did not have that luxury.{{more}}

At 12 years old, she had already mastered the role of being a mother to her five younger siblings; she was battling an ongoing medical condition, and she had witnessed her mother being abused at the hands of her father.

So who is Ayanna Baptiste today? She is Crown Counsel in the office of the Attorney General. The 27-year-old holds an upper second class honours Law degree from the University of the West Indies and a Legal Education Certificate from the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad. At Law School, she was placed on the Principal’s Roll of Honour and obtained a Merit award.

How did this petite young woman not only survive but triumph magnificently over adversity?

Ayanna was forced to grow up quickly. When she was 12 years old, she said her father, with whom she is now estranged, seriously assaulted her mother, causing her mother to be hospitalized. “It is from that point I basically had to help raise my younger siblings while my mother recovered in the hospital…my father disappeared shortly after that,” Ayanna recalled.

At the time, her siblings: Demetria, Kemmuel, Kenia, Veronique and Jonathan, ranged in age from 8 months to 5 years old.

After her mother was released from the hospital, she moved the family from Richland Park to Penniston as she was afraid for her safety. But as time went by, her mother decided it was not good to be living at another person’s place, so they moved back home.

Ayanna shared that her father had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, which she stated deeply affected the entire family.

“My upbringing was kind of rough, because my mother had to be a mother and father figure to me…” she said.

Ayanna also has an ongoing battle with Lymphedema, a condition which causes a build up of fluid in soft-body tissue when the lymph system is blocked, resulting in swelling of the arms or legs.

Upon entering the Girls’ High School, Ayanna said she would have to wear bandages or black stockings to cover her swollen legs, which she admitted was not easy, since the all-boy St. Vincent Grammar School was right next door.

The constant swelling of her legs also saw her being admitted to the hospital quite frequently.

Despite the frequent hospitalizations and less than ideal domestic situation, Ayanna did well academically, which made her mother extremely proud. She vividly recalls how her mother broke down on her first day at the Community College.

“I remember leaving home in my spanking new uniform and something told me to look back. I saw my mom on the porch crying and that was the first time she had shown that kind of raw emotion…I realised how proud she was of me.”

Ayanna’s responsibilities at home intensified when her mother migrated to Barbados while she was still pursuing A’Level studies at the Community College.

“I had to wake up early in the morning to help them get ready for school. I would help to plait their hair and when I came home from school, I still helped with their homework,” Ayanna said. Her neighbours and her cousin Lindon Ollivierre would pitch in to help out from time to time.

When asked how she managed to balance her academics and duties at home, with a deep breath and clasped hands placed on her desk, Ayanna replied: “I think I matured at an early age and I had help from others, so I tried my very best to stay focused,” she explained.

Her idea of a social life was time spent at home with her brothers and sisters between the pages of a book.

“My mother brought me up as a loner and I didn’t really believe in too much company. But at the same time, I did not get to do what the so called other normal kids would do,” she said.

All the hard work finally bore fruit for Ayanna when she was awarded a national scholarship. For Ayanna, it was not only the opportunity she needed to allow her to further her studies, but it also made it possible for her to be reunited with her mother Leslie John in Barbados.

Throughout her studies in Barbados, Ayanna worked part-time at a gas station to support her family here at home.

When preparing for her final examinations, tragedy reared its ugly head.

Her mother suffered a stroke.

“I was at home one day when I got a call from one of my mother’s friends stating that my mom had fallen in the kitchen. When I spoke to her, I told her she was working too hard and take the day off.”

About an hour later, Ayanna received another phone call informing her that her mother had paralysis on her left side and had to be rushed to the hospital.

“When I got there, she couldn’t move her right side either and she was in a lot of pain.”

She said she learnt that her mother was experiencing a progressive stroke.

“…Seeing her in that condition was one of the roughest days of my life because she cried everyday,” Ayanna said in a soft voice.

The day before her mother passed, Ayanna said she wept uncontrollably and spoke to God.

“I went home and spoke to God and I said ‘God, you know she is not the kind of person who would like to be in this pain. If it is that she is not going to come back to us, I prefer you take her out of her misery’,” Ayanna said.

The next morning, the hospital relayed the news of her mother’s death.

Given the option to write her exams at a later date because of her mother’s death, Ayanna, however, still, wrote the examinations and gained an upper second class honours degree.

Ayanna said throughout it all she kept one thing on her mind, and that was being successful and being able to help her family.

“One thing that drove me is the fact that I knew I needed to make something of myself if I was going to help my siblings. That was my main drive. I always envisaged being in the higher echelons of society and knew education would help to get me there,” she noted.

“My mom was a very ambitious person who worked for what she wanted. She did not go to Barbados for fun. She worked hard for us,” Ayanna said proudly.

“She always encouraged me to do well and do positive things…if I did not do that, she would say she would give me a clout.”

Being admitted to practice law in the OECS on October 23, 2008, was a “bittersweet” moment for her. At her call to the Bar, Ayanna spoke fondly of her mother, while fighting back tears.

In recalling that momentous occasion, Ayanna said: “I made it so far, but did not get to share my biggest accomplishment with my mom. I know how much she was planning on being there and knowing she wasn’t physically there…I miss her, because anytime there is a momentous occasion, I can’t share it with her,” she lamented.

With a promising career ahead of her, Ayanna attributes much of her success to her mother for helping to mould her into the person she is today.

“She was and still is my pillar of strength,” she added.

Ayanna revealed that up until recently, she held a deep resentment towards her father, but says she has learnt that holding a grudge against him only holds her back.

“…In my mind, he tried to take my mom’s life, but in some parts, he took away my childhood with him as well,” she lamented.

She hasn’t spoken to her father since the incident with her mother.

As for her younger brothers and sisters, Demetria, now 18, attends the Division of Technical and Vocational Education of the Community College; Kemmuel, 15 and Kenia, 14, both attend the St Joseph’s Convent Marriaqua and Veronique, 11, and Jonathan, 8, attend the Richland Park Seventh Day Adventist Primary School.

It is her hope that her young siblings would learn from her experiences and use them as stepping stones to making something good out of their lives.

“They are all doing well, and I hope they will take a page out of my book and do great things in life,” Ayanna said.

Ayanna’s challenges while growing up may have been taller than her five foot frame, but in no way do they compare with her tower of accomplishments.

“I am proud of who I am today and my siblings have learned a lot from me,” she stated.

She also thanked her boyfriend Lennon DaBreo for standing by her side and supporting her over the years.

Sharing advice for persons who might be going through similar situations, Ayanna urged persons to: “Pray a lot as this is the one motivator that helps…Perseverance is a part of your character you should always hold onto,” she beseeched.