‘Loving Children, Changing Lives’
Growing up in Jamaica, Marlene Gordon had no idea she was poor, as any inkling of hardship was eclipsed with love, shaping her identity and self-confidence.
Born in Kingston, Gordon spent her early years in Round Hill, St Elizabeth, where she resided with her grandparents in a very small house that had no electricity and no indoor plumbing.
Her mother and father toiled in the United States just so they could take care of the family.
“I am grateful for that time in my life. It gave me my roots, roots that I am very proud of, roots that make me take nothing for granted; roots that help me to remain humble and grateful,” she shared.
Today, at age 56, the humble Jamaican is a leading attorney-at-law who heads the legal team at Panera Brands, one of the largest fast-casual restaurant platforms in the United States, operating 3,853 nationwide bakery cafes.
Determined to help young Jamaicans rise to the top and join the many Jamaicans blazing a trail across the world, Gordon established the Lynne Mitchell Foundation with the mission to 'Loving Children…Changing Lives'.
Named in honour of her mother, the foundation has donated over J$56 million to the country's education system in the last 10 years.
Gordon revealed that knowing she had limited resources when she started the foundation, she decided to narrow her focus in order to have the greatest impact.
“The poor, rural community in Jamaica where my mom was born and raised quickly became the primary point of interest because I knew that no matter how limited my resources, I could always do something there that would have a significant impact. In other words, it doesn't take a lot to positively impact the lives of people who have very, very little to begin with,” the foundation chairman shared with The Sunday Gleaner.
Children and education became her main point of interest and in particular, Seaview Primary School – the one-room schoolhouse that has been serving Round Hill for 53 years.
“My mom attended this school, as did many of her siblings, and at age 15 when she graduated from high school, she obtained her first job and became a teacher at Seaview Primary School,” Gordon noted.
The rural St Elizabeth school resonated with her on a personal level as well because when her parents migrated to the United States in the early 1970s, she and her brother also attended school in a one-room schoolhouse.
“We, too, walked many miles to school. We, too, had to learn in the very same conditions that the students at Seaview Primary are today still learning in. We, too, understand what it means to live with no electricity, no running water, using outhouses and oil lamps, drinking water from a tank, and the like. So, this mission, though inspired by my mom, has a very direct and personal meaning to me,” said the graduate of the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and Harvard Business School.
LOVE TRANSCENDS ALL
During her interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Gordon noted that regardless of financial hardships, she grew up with a lot of love and love transcends all.
For the past 10 years, she showered that love on Seaview Primary School, but is now spreading it across Jamaica for other students to benefit through the Lynne Mitchell scholarship programme. Running from November 2022 to May 3 this year, the scholarship offers US$1,500 to US$5,000 to recipients.
“There are so many incredibly smart and high-achieving students who need someone to come and lift them up and give them the opportunity to live up to their full potential; we want to support these students,” Gordon declared.
Award of the scholarship is contingent on several criteria, including enrolment in high school; plans for a two-year or four-year course at university, college or graduate school; the submission of a completed application; and demonstrated financial need.
The chairman of the Lynne Mitchell Foundation noted that their belief is that education is a fundamental human right and that no one should be forgotten.
Aware of the struggles countries like Jamaica face, as a result of high unemployment and low wages, the woman – who also served up to 16 months ago as chief administrative officer, general counsel and secretary of Fresh Del Monte Produce, which has over 40,000 employees globally – said change is needed.
“We have opened our hearts in order to open doors for students who desperately need a change, because we believe in giving opportunity to the forgotten,” she said, adding that through their scholarship programme they have helped students turn their dreams for a better life for themselves and their families into reality.
'IT GAVE ME HOPE'
And this is not just talk. The bold statements of the Lynne Mitchell Foundation have been endorsed by recent graduate of Northern Caribbean University, Ashanique Russell, who studied hospitality management, who said she would not have been able to complete school without the help of the organisation.
“I have no idea where I would have been in life had it not been for the foundation which paid all of my expenses since high school,” said Russell, who has been on the programme for nine years.
When she entered university, every semester she would send her expenses to the organisation, including for rent to live close to the university's campus, books and even computer, which were all paid by the foundation.
One of four children for her farmer mom, the primary breadwinner who never graduated high school and who struggled to make ends meet, Russell said that knowledge inspired her to work hard at bettering herself.
“I didn't want to disappoint the foundation, which gave me hope and the fuel to keep going, even when things were so hard and I felt like giving up,” the young lady told The Sunday Gleaner.
Hearing the sentiments expressed by Russell and the gratitude from her mom, Gordon realised the profound impact she was making in giving others hope for a better future.
“We have changed her entire family – her brother, sister, aunts, cousins, all of them – because they got to watch her graduate from university and to have higher hopes,” Gordon said.
IN HONOUR OF MOM
Reminiscing on the path taken by her own mother, Lynne Mitchell, the significance was not lost on Gordon that young Russell had graduated with a degree in hospitality management, the same course that changed her mom's life almost 50 years prior.
The late matriarch migrated to the United States at age 22, studied hospitality management, then hotel management in Germany, and later managed hotels in the US. And while she moved up the corporate ladder, she never forgot where she came from in St Elizabeth, or her alma mater.
In 2012, three months after her mother's death, Gordon founded the charity.
Her aim then, and now, was to provide educational resources to underprivileged children in Jamaica in honour of her mom.
“I have continued her legacy of showing love. And it says it all in our mission statement 'Loving Children…Changing Lives'. We are hard at work giving hope and opening doors of opportunity for children by offering educational opportunities,” she said.
“I know my mom is smiling and cheering me on. I can hear her saying, 'Disrupt their reality and change their world'.”
Marlene Gordon spent 14 years at Burger King Corporation as vice president and general counsel, and while there advocated for diversity, equity and inclusion.
At Burger King, she collaborated with key industry leaders, including Google, Microsoft, Walt Disney Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, MTV, NFL and NASCAR.
Between 2013 and 2018, she worked at Bacardi North America as a senior member of the leadership team, focusing on executing marketing, sales, and distribution strategy in North America, including business planning, development, financial assessment, negotiation and execution of business strategies to drive corporate growth.
Gordon, who also worked at Blockbuster Entertainment Group, a division of Viacom, Inc., between 1994 and 1997, is the recipient of several recognitions and awards, including Leadership Award, National Association of Women Lawyers, Civil Trailblazer Award, Dade County Bar Association acknowledgement, and the National Diversity Action Council Glass Ceiling Award.
She was selected as one of South Florida's Most Powerful and Influential Women in 2013.
Having achieved so much in her life, Gordon, with husband Charles and sons Christopher and Zachary by her side, is ready to take on Jamaica in a much bigger way and deliver on her commitments.
Persons can apply for the Lynne Mitchell scholarship at:
Details of each scholarship can be found at: https://lynnemitchellfoundation.awardspring.com/Home/Scholarships