On any given day, Noreen Gaskin or her employees can be found feeding stray dogs on the streets or in the National Park and according to the businesswoman and humanitarian her “love affair” started almost 20 years ago and it has grown over the years, with her having some 22 dogs in her home at one time.
It is not just dogs that the owner of the Sentinel Security Inc goes above and beyond for, she also would not think twice of going into her pot for a plate of food to feed someone who is hungry, or into her pocket to make a monetary contribution. However, she is drawn to dogs because they cannot talk. Gaskin said she remembers her own poverty-stricken upbringing and how she felt when she was hungry. It is the thought that dogs have the same feelings but cannot express them in words that keeps her returning to the streets to feed them.
Her day begins at 4 am and the first thing she does is to document how many dogs need to be fed, which ones are sick and need the vet, and which ones need to be groomed. It is sometimes a burdensome task, but she would have it no other way.
She does all of this quietly as she is not one to blow her own trumpet, so it was a hard task to get her to sit down for an interview with the Sunday Stabroek. But once this was done, the flood gates were opened and even tears flowed freely during the conversation.
While Gaskin’s has been what many would consider an accomplished life, its beginnings were very bumpy filled with some cruel turns and twists, inclusive of the horrifying suicide of her father who had set himself afire leaving a woman and nine children behind. Then there was the sudden death of her husband, retired Colonel Gregory Gaskin, six years ago. But it is because of those very twists and turns that she always tries to help another person or animal; as she puts it, she is a woman “who cannot say no.”
Her friend, animal activist Syeada Manbodh, describes Gaskin as the silent angel who helps many and according to her the minute she hears that there is need she is already to help. “She is like an angel, a very special person,” Manbodh said.
Gaskin recalled that her journey with dogs started in 1998 when she met a woman in the National Park during her exercise routine. The woman was taking food for a dog that lived in the park and later when she had to leave the country, she lamented that the dog would no longer receive meals; Gaskin offered to feed the animal.
“… I just said, ‘I would bring food for the dog’. So, I started feeding Ranger, that was the name of the dog, and then she got pups and I started feeding the pups. Then other stray dogs started coming around. I think they smelled the food,” she told the Sunday Stabroek.
The dogs caught the attention of many including the residents of the Salvation Army who used the park for their exercise routine, and they asked her to assist with feeding the many dogs in the organisation’s compound, which were at times used for their therapeutic sessions.
“After that it started spreading. They started calling me the ‘dog lady’ and if I am exercising in the park and someone wants to find me, people would say look for the dogs because if I go around two laps the dog would start following me and if I stop they would stop too,” she said.
She now feeds about 70 dogs daily and this entails her ensuring that two huge pots of food are cooked, as apart from the dogs on the streets, she also has eight dogs at home and two at the Lamaha Street compound of her business place. The numbers sometimes increase as when her friend Syeada is leaving the country she would ask her to feed the dogs she usually takes care of.
Even during the interview at her office, one of the dogs that had been found on the street close by, slept comfortably on a chair, demonstrating Gaskin’s love for the four-legged friend of man.
Her staff members—she is the manager director of a business that has some 1,200 staff members—have also joined Gaskin in caring for animals, especially dogs and they would sometimes pick up strays and tell her about their neighbours’ dogs that may need help. Sometimes dogs are even brought from Berbice and at times there is a relay system which sees a vehicle from Georgetown travelling to a certain point to meet a vehicle from Berbice with dogs from that county.
‘Who feeds them?’
Asked what keeps her going in the feeding drive, Gaskin answered with a simple question: “Who feeds them if I don’t?
“There are a lot of other people doing it in different areas but for me it was looking in the dogs eyes and… they are helpless, they can’t ask you for anything and the more I moved around and the more I saw… I would think of people, when you are hungry or if you are thirsty, and if I don’t do this for them then who will do it?” she continued, breaking down at this point.
Gaskin explained that she becomes very emotional because she believes her passion stems from her poverty-stricken upbringing.
“I do the same for people too. It is not them alone. It is everybody and everybody every day and all day. People come, people call, people send people and I just don’t know how to say no. I am one of those people who don’t know how to say no,” she shared as tears continued to trickle down her cheeks.
She admitted that sometimes she “gets tired and drained because I put everybody’s needs above mine” but she keeps going.
Gaskin lists her 79-year-old mother as one of the strongest women she knows; she draws her strength from her.
“My father committed suicide in 1985 and being the eldest, I was the only child working when my father died, and I started to support the family,” she recalled, adding that even though her mother never worked she never allowed them to go hungry and she had a mountain of work to do at home.
“Sometimes she would go hungry just to ensure whatever is there is enough for her children,” she said adding that she is not sure how they did it because while her mother took care of the home, she provided whatever finances she could and also helped to discipline her siblings as her mother lacked in that regard.
Gaskin said her own father had taken early responsibility for his mother and siblings after his father died, and by the time he was ready to have a family he was tired. Even so, he had nine children and his meagre salary could scarce take care of his family; he became an alcoholic. One morning, the dogs started to bark and when her mother investigated he was in a ball of fire in the backyard, a tragic end to a hard life.
“He left us with nothing, just an old house and I remember that afternoon when I came back from the burial ground I looked at my siblings, some of them were tiny, and I said this is my responsibility and I took it
seriously,” Gaskin said.
She never had friends. At the age of five she was in the kitchen helping her mother and later on would always rush home from school to help take care of the little ones.
When she got married, Gaskin said, she believed it was God’s way of telling her that she can “help more now, you can give, you can do a lot more than you have done.”
Gaskin said she was once in the Guyana National Service (GNS) and worked with Major General Norman McLean and for her, regardless of what people say about the GNS the disciplined instilled helped to make her into who she is today.
Gaskin and her husband did not have children together, but he was a father of two, who she considers as hers. In fact, her stepdaughter Geneva Gaskin had this to say: “Entering my life at a tender age she has always been a beacon of support, kindness and unconditional love. My stepmother and I share a unique bond. Not allowing biology to determine my place in her heart, instead, she treated me like her own, guiding, supporting and loving me in excess, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Growing up so closely knitted to her side I was privileged to witness her jovial spirit, love for animals and willingness to give. What I admire most is her ability to empathize and form meaningful connections with whoever she touches. I am continuously learning from her, a phenomenal woman, she remains my daily inspiration.”
Gaskin’s husband, then Chief Executive Officer of COPS Security and former army Lieutenant Colonel, Gregory Gaskin, died in June 2012 after he sustained internal injuries when he fell from his motorcycle at the South Dakota Circuit, Timehri. His death was a shock, but Gaskin recalled that he lived a full life.
“He lived and I think the way he died he would not have wanted it any other way, he would not have wanted to grow old and died,” she said.
“I have the different chapters in my life. I have had the tragedies. I have had the joys. A lot of people ask me how I do it and really, I don’t know how I do all the things I do, how I remain smiling… I just don’t know. I cry when I have to, but I pray hard and I carry no animosity, no hatred. I fetch no burdens because you can’t please or help everybody. I try to do as much as I can within limitations…”