Some people live their lives in black and white, others in shades of grey, but there is something about Rachel Surgenor that speaks of colour.
It’s not just her dress sense, although she has a great eye for colour; it’s more her attitude to life and refusal to put people into ‘boxes’.
Raised in a Brethren family, she belongs now to a Presbyterian church but is equally at home in a Peruvian Catholic Church or staying with Muslim friends in Turkey.
Her openness to others has made her a valued friend to people from wildly different backgrounds and has led to her joining those who fly the flag for Fair Trade all over the world. Today she can draw on wisdom gathered through diverse careers working with addicts, in banking and then Fair Trade.
When we meet, she has just come from a networking breakfast at Phezulu, a fair trade cafe in Bangor.
Rachel Grant began life in Banbridge, moving to Bangor with her family aged 17 when her father was appointed house master at Rathgael Training Centre. “I went from co-ed Friends School, which I absolutely adored, to single sex Glenlola which I hated. I failed my A levels, as I knew I would, but was devastated anyway and twice tried to get into nursing but was turned down,” she says, with characteristic frankness.
Rachel decided to join Community Service Volunteers and found herself, at the age of 19, working in a hostel for women alcoholics in Glasgow run by a nun.
It was a hard introduction to the world of work. “The nun didn’t stay long and I worked there alongside the Simon Community who had a hostel in the Gorbals, and St Vincent de Paul, who would have sent women who wanted to get off alcohol to us.”
There were other addictions for this totally untrained volunteer to deal with. “One really good-looking woman from a middle class family was addicted to Bel Air hair spray. She would drink it and you knew she was on something but couldn’t smell alcohol. Another woman was addicted to Benylin — in those days it had alcohol in it — and she would always say she had a cold.
“It was a steep learning curve for me,” says Rachel, recalling she was paid £3 a week for her trouble. “A lot of the time I was alone.
“I was there for nine months and then came home and ended up working at Whiteabbey Girls Training School for two years. It was very difficult because I was young and the girls were very dysfunctional. It was the mid ‘70s and they were skinheads and were into self-harming.
“I had gone into it because I wanted to help people — I was going to change the world — but in fact I felt it was destroying me and giving me a really distorted view of adolescence. Everyone was effing and blinding and aggressive, wanting to hurt themselves and everybody else and I began to see that at my age, 19-21, it wasn’t healthy.
“I remember crying my eyes out I was so stressed and depressed.”
It was during her years at Whiteabbey that she left the family home in Bangor, moved to Belfast, and met her husband Leslie at a disco in the Wellington Park Hotel. “It’s our 33rd wedding anniversary on Friday,” she says proudly.
“When I met Leslie I decided I needed to move on for my sanity.”
Rachel got a job in a building society and spent the next 22 years following a career path that took her to a senior level in a very male dominated environment.
On the surface, life was perfect. Both she and Leslie were enjoying successful careers, they had a son, Andrew, and daughter, Paula, and plenty of money to enjoy life with their many friends.
But on closer inspection, all was far from well. Some of the remarks that were made to her or in front of her about other women by her male colleagues are unprintable here but ironically, it was a woman who brought that career to a bitter end.
“I loved my job but I always felt that I was having to fight my corner,” she reflects.
When she found herself working under a woman a whole new dimension of harrassment unfolded until Rachel, having exhausted the grievance procedures, took the organisation to an industrial tribunal.
“She won her case after a gruelling five days in court and walked away from that phase of her life with a small settlement and feeling physically, emotionally and mentally wrecked.
She said goodbye to a big salary and company car only to receive a second knockback a year later when Leslie was made redundant. “It was a very difficult time for us as a family,” admits Rachel.
She did admin for a friend, washed dishes in the Green Bicycle cafe in Bangor and wound up doing some work for Tearfund where she was introduced to the concept of Fair Trade.
She was liaising with churches who would take crafts on a sale or return basis when an email came in from a Peruvian girl asking for a volunteer to help her at a trade fair in Frankfurt.
Rachel volunteered and began a friendship with Yannina which set the course for her life since. “Yannina has a company called Manos Amigos in Lima. She works with 100 different artisans all over the country and a percentage of the profits from the company support a children’s education and feeding programme and that was my first introduction to Fair Trade.
“I loved Yannina's business and I loved her as a person,” says Rachel, explaining: “Retailers pay 50% up front to allow the artisans to buy the materials and go into production. Yannina then collects the finished product, performs quality control and exports it.”
Rachel began selling Tear Fund and Traidcraft produce from home and had the opportunity to visit India and Peru.
“I wanted to go to India because I wanted to experience poverty,” she says. “It was a humbling experience because they showed us such hospitality.”
At one point her friend, artist Dawn Thompson gave a group of women paper and pencils and asked them to draw a picture. “One grandmother stood up and said, ‘I’ve never held a pencil before’. Dawn taught them to draw on silk squares and produce greeting cards as a source of income.
“To be exposed to the slums and the smells and the deprivation and to see the tremendous work that in this case Asha were doing to empower the women and educate them and the children in health and hygiene and income generation was amazing. Those women believe that if Jesus were alive today he would be living with them in the slums. That really changed my middle class thinking.”
In Peru, Rachel was struck by the way when people become prosperous, they stay in their community and contribute to it, instead of moving to better off areas.
This willingness to look at other perspectives on life makes Rachel a generous friend. She and Leslie struck up a close friendship with a Turkish muslim family some 25 years ago and she was impacted deeply by a conversation they had after the devastating earthquake of 1999 which claimed some 20,000 lives.
The parents, Nilgun and Dogan were in Ankara and their daughters Yagmur and Doga were on holiday with their grandparents when the earthquake ripped through the ground underneath their holiday apartment. “Yagmur heard a rumble and next thing she knew the apartment was coming down. She ran into the bedroom and woke the others up. They grabbed the car keys in the dark and walked out from a second floor apartment which was now at ground level, found the car and drove 10 hours to Ankara in their night clothes with the blood streaming out of them. Everyone else in the apartments died,” says Rachel.
“Nilgun and Dogan didn’t know if they had survived and were screaming out to God for their children. Nilgin said it was a miracle that they survived. A lot of Christians would have a problem with that but I don’t,” she says firmly.
With her growing involvement in Fair Trade, Rachel took her courage in her hands and opened a shop, Pueblos, on the lower Ormeau Road in 2003, going on to become chairman of Belfast Fair Trade Committee.
It was an odd choice of location for a middle class Presbyterian from Bangor, a working class nationalist area, but Rachel embraced it and in turn, was warmly welcomed by the locals.
Her shop was opposite the Sinn Fein office and she recalls the first time MLA Alex Maskey came to visit: “He said he was just coming to see how I was getting on. I really liked him. He supported the Fair trade ethos and bought a present for his grandchild. My friend Karen made coffee for him and his colleague and I thought, “God, you are so funny because she had worked with the supergrass families in the police and here she was making coffee for Sinn Fein people.”
Rachel’s customers were a multicultural mix and she tried to cater for all tastes, stocking Irish Bibles and a mix of crafts and food. After five years her lease had expired and she relocated to a shop/cafe at Mornington Crescent, just down the road, where Hilary Clinton famously had coffee with community worker Joyce McCartan.
It became an oasis for all sorts of people who would drop in and end up sharing their problems with Rachel. After six months, however, she became ill and had to close the shop to have surgery. At the same time, her mother became critically ill and passed away in November.
The past six months have brought space to recover physcially and financially and gather strength to start again.
Leslie is now a counsellor with the Citizens Advice Bureau, the children have moved on with their own lives and doting granny Rachel is once more running the business from home.
She has been heartened by |the growth in Fair Trade in Northern Ireland and has nothing but praise for Castlereagh and North Down councils who are embracing the ethos.
“Looking back over my life I have always believed that we are here to make a difference and I will keep trying to do that as long as I live.”
Rachel, supported by North Down Borough Council, is having a Christmas sale at Bangor Heritage Centre on Saturday, November 27, from 10am-4pm. For details tel 07711608908 or email email@example.com