At the 2023 National Honours and Awards Presentation in the country’s Capital, a spritely dressed diminutive lady, sporting an infectious smile walked along the isles to collect her well-deserved Order Of The Turks And Caicos Islands…this was after the name “Rita Gardiner” was announced by the speaker.
Though the recipient of many accolades, that one was most touching for her.
To be honest though, when one hears the name Rita Gardiner, the first words that come to mind are ‘Resilient’, ‘Dedicated’, Resourceful, ‘Caring’ and ‘Impartial’.
She is not much over five feet in stature, but that petiteness is just a smokescreen to the punch that this dynamo of a woman packs.
Hon. Rita Jean Gardiner, OBE, currently serves as her country’s 6th Complaints Commissioner/Ombudsman, appointed by H.E. Governor Dakin in November 2022.
She had the distinct pleasure of growing up in one of the most renowned areas of the Turks and Caicos Islands and indeed the Nation’s Capital - North Back Salina - a place that is near and dear to her heart.
She lived her life as intentionally as possible, knowing that she was raised in a community where giving back and touching lives was a part of the community culture.
Rita said she developed these traits from her grandmother, who raised her and instilled strong values in her, which included perseverance and hard work, pointing out that her grandmother was her champion and motivation.
Despite numerous national, regional, and international accolades, Rita remains a down to earth and humble individual. Her life has always been geared towards volunteering time and energy because she believes it is her passion and her purpose.
From a child growing up next door to the Parade Grounds in Grand Turk, Rita was always fascinated by all things sports. She spent all of her leisure time on the Parade Grounds engaging in games that that had to do with athletics.
“I enjoyed competing as an athlete at the (then) Turks and Caicos High School, (now the Helena Jones Robinson High), where I left records that were only broken many years later. In my final year of high school competition, I won one silver and two gold medals that still grace my archives to this day,” Gardiner said.
She continued: “Having served in sports administration for over four decades, I am grateful to have played an integral role in the sports movement which brought about change for the Turks and Caicos Islands in the mid 70’s, and for decades thereafter.
“To this day I am still a member of the Executive of the Turks and Caicos Amateur Athletic Association, a Founding Member, who served as the Assistant Secretary of the first 1977 committee and attended the first regional championships (CARIFTA GAMES) in 1978 as Assistant Coach.
“Thereafter, I have been advocating for continued progress over the years including Turks and Caicos becoming a full-fledged Member of the Commonwealth Games Federation in 2003 with all NGB’s of Sports under its remit.”
Rita has given 10 years of service as the first Director of the Gender Affairs Bureau (formerly Women’s Desk) from February 1, 1999, until November 2010.
“At the dawn of the 4th World’s Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995, women became aware that their issues were not addressed at the national and international levels. Therefore, the U.N. ensured that women all over the world including the TCI, attended the largest conference ever held on women.
“ In preparation for this conference, the TCI sought consultants from the Caribbean Region, to complete a report on the status of women in the TCI, working along with local researchers, by means of workshops, interviews and public consultations. It was revealed what women needed most for their advancement and empowerment. One of the areas identified, was insufficient mechanisms at all levels, to promote the advancement of women.
Two representatives were selected to attend the event - Hon. Cheryl Astwood Tull and Hon. Mahayla Wynns. And upon their return, they advocated for the establishment of a Women’s Desk,” said, noting that after four years of lobbying, an interview of a cross-section of women took place, and she emerged as the successful candidate.
The Women’s Desk later evolved into the Gender Bureau, and she became its first director.
Gardiner worked tirelessly to enhance the lives of young people by establishing numerous programs to create awareness for women’s empowerment and the fight for gender equality. She was relentless in her work and stood firm against the status quo.
She said her greatest achievement was the establishment of Continuous Education for Teenage Mothers, an initiative of which she has always been proud. She gives credit to former minister Hon. Clarence Selver, the Women in Development, with whom she worked side by side in carrying out this initiative.
She also credts Lillieth Allen, who collaborated with her on the Continuous Education project by offering her Business College to operate the program.
Rita lives by the motto: “If you empower a girl, you empower a woman; if you empower, a woman you empower a community; if you empower a community, you empower a nation”.
Rita becomes emotional whenever she reflects on the program and how many of its’ former students are currently making meaningful contributions to nation building as teachers, police officers, nurses, administrators, and other professions that are contributing to the growth and development of the Turks and Caicos Islands.
She draws reference to the first valedictorian of the Continuous Education Program, Ms. Shavonne Rigby, who went on to further her Education obtaining a Master’s Degree in Mental Health.
In 2001, Gardiner partnered with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to bring about Legislation on the Family Law and Domestic Violence Reform. The country has since enacted legislation for the protection of women and children. She has travelled extensively throughout the world for women’s advancement and to bring about awareness on Gender Equality and to end violence against women.
She attended the United Nations General Assembly with the then Minister of Gender Affairs, Hon. Lillian Boyce, on the Commission on the Status of Women, in 2005. It was truly an eye opener for her, seeing how women had to fight to bring attention to their issues and concerns on the global agenda. She said tt was truly a new phenomenon watching women lobby just to be heard; this made her realize how fortunate women in the Turks and Caicos Islands are.
TCI has been elevated to one of the global leaders when it comes to women’s empowerment and taking the lead in gender equality. She thanks former Ministers Boyce and Hon. Delancey, the Attorney General’s Office, and the NGO’s, such as the Women in Development and the Domestic Violence Foundation during those formative years for their unwavering support in advancing the Women’s Agenda and carrying out its mandate of being a catalyst for women and girls’ advancement.
Hon. Gardiner empowered girls and young women in other areas by providing a platform to showcase their beauty, talent, poise and educational skills in the formation of the first T.I. Super Model Agency in 1994, which later transitioned to the annual Ms. Grand Turk and Ms. Teen Grand Turk Pageants - a platform that continues today under the T I Summajam Festival, which she cofounded with her husband in 1995 with its main objective: showcasing TCI Culture, Music Awards, preparing girls for higher participation in beauty pageants, with the ultimate goal of representing the Turks and Caicos Islands at Miss Universe.
This event brings together people from the islands for a 3-day cultural extravaganza. She prides herself in the fact that she has discovered many girls that went on to win Miss Turks and Caicos, including the beautiful Shanise Williams, who is still the holder of Msiss Turks and Caicos Universe.
In 1978 Turks and Caicos participated in the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Albertha, Canada for the very first time, but was unable to participate thereafter. In 1995 when Gardiner became President of the Turks and Caicos Amateur Athletic Association (TCAAA) she vowed to get the country back into the Commonwealth Federation.
She travelled to Canada and established an ally that assisted her in reinstating participation. After much lobbying, the Turks and Caicos Amateur Athletic Association was granted approval. In 1998, after a 20-year hiatus of the Commonwealth Games, Hon. Gardiner led a Team as Chef de Mission to the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Games where Turks and Caicos participated in three sporting disciplines.
She was Chef de Mission in 2002 in Manchester and in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. Turks and Caicos Islands continues to be well represented at the Commonwealth Games today.
Hon. Gardiner sought greater autonomy by lobbying for Turks and Caicos to receive full membership to the Commonwealth Games Federation. In 2003, TCICGA was established in the Turks and Caicos Islands with 10 National Sporting bodies under its remit. Hon. Gardiner was duly elected as the first President of the CGA, and the country saw the opening of the Commonwealth Games Office with support from the Commonwealth Games Federation. We began to branch out and were soon affiliated with many other regional and international organizations. The Queen’s Baton Relay made its inaugural trip to the country in 2006 and has returned every four years thereafter as a preamble to the hosting of the Commonwealth Games.
· 1980: Received Athletic Scholarship to Indian River Community College, Fort Pierce, Florida, graduating in 1982 with an Associate Degree in Education. Upon her return to the country, she continued her work with the TCAAA, contributing significantly to the Inter School Championships that were usually held in Grand Turk.
· 1995: Elected as President of the TCAAA where she made a major impact and encouraged the membership of many others and initiated a number of sporting and grassroots programs. She was appointed as Chairman of the TCI Sports Commission on 3 separate occasions, making meaningful decisions that would benefit the sporting federations and the Turks and Caicos Islands on a whole.
· January 1998: Whilst attending a meeting with other Caribbean Members in Melbourne, Australia talks began around the formation of a Caribbean National Olympic Committee.
· February 1999: The first Caribbean Olympic Caucus was held in Barbados, establishing the first Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees (CANOC). Because of her involvement she was recognized and honored along with 6 other members in December 2022… ‘for the Pioneering Contribution you have made to its Realization as the Leader of the Caribbean Olympic Movement.’
· 2004: Under instructions from the then Minister of Sports, Hon. Lillian Boyce, made a successful presentation to the CARIFTA Congress to host the CARIFTA Games in TCI
· 2005: Attended the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Meeting in Jamaica where the Regional Anti- Doping Organization (RADO) was formed. Turks and Caicos became one of the 13 Member States of RADO and successfully hosted the 2017 RADO Conference.
· In 2005 Hon. Gardiner launched the 100 Black Men of TCI with Mr. Thomas Dortch of the USA. She attended the 20th Anniversary of the 100 Black Men in Atlanta Georgia with the President, Mr. Leo Misick and Vice President, Mr. Oswald Williams
· 2007: Under Gardiner’s Presidency of the TCAAA and Commonwealth Games respectively, as well as Chairman of the TCI Sports Commission, the TCI’s National Stadium was fully constructed and hosted TCI’s first CARIFTA GAMES in Providenciales.
· 2013: Cofounded Turks and Caicos’ first Women in Sports Organization under the TCICGA with support from the Canadian Women in Sports Federation. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the TCI and Canada.
GARDINER’S OTHER NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENTS:
1991- 1995: Former Member of Parliament, House of Assembly, Turks and Caicos Islands
1998: Year of Women in Sports, presented with a Gold Medallion “For Bringing About Gender Equality in Sports”
1999-2010: First Coordinator Women’s Desk / Director of Gender Affairs Bureau
2001: Recognized by the TCAAA ‘For Outstanding Participation/Dedication in Track and Field
2013: Appointed Patron of the Gender Affairs Bureau
2015: Inducted into the National Sports Hall of Fame
2016: Awarded Women in Sports Award for Outstanding Contribution to Advancing Sports
2017: Awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen for Service to Sports, Women and Communities
2017: Awarded the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) Veteran Pin Meritorious Service to the Cause of World Athletics
2017: Awarded the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) Merit of Honor; first woman in the CGF to receive the award in a male dominated federation.
2018: Awarded “Turks and Caicos Person of the Year” by Turks and Caicos News Media
2022: Elected first Life Member of the Commonwealth Games Association
2022: Awarded the CANOC (Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees) as a Founding Member
2023: Awarded The Order Of The Turks And Caicos Islands by TCI 2022 National Honours and Awards Committee.