Mother, mentor, mayor – all accurate descriptors of Saleema McCree Thomas. The new Point Fortin mayor has had her fair share of life’s challenges but continues to push through. She hopes her story can inspire other young women.
The 35-year-old was raised in Techier Village, Point Fortin and is the eldest of three children (two girls and one boy). She described her childhood as “humbling beginnings” and told WMN she distinctly remembers the one-bedroom building she called home.
“You know those brick homes from long time? The ones you didn’t have to paint? Those homes that were built with red bricks and mortar – it wasn’t plastered. That was on Sixth Street in Techier.
“My father was working Trinmar at the time as a casual worker and my mother was working at Chatham Youth Camp. When things started getting better financially – when my mom had my brother, we moved to a two-bedroom home on Second Street.”
She loves her community. She said there was a different level of unity there which helped shape the woman she is today.
“We were very family-oriented in Techier. Everybody was like family. It’s a community that showed tremendous love.
“I grew up in that era where your neighbour could have scolded you for things you did, then when you go home, your mother scolds you too. It was that era where your neighbours were also like your mother and your father. So, the people in my community played an instrumental role. I take great pride when I say it.”
She said whenever she visits elderly members of the community, she thanks them for their contributions to her development.
But politics was not on her mind as a child. In fact, she had dreams of becoming a midwife.
She attended Point Fortin RC Primary School, followed by Vessigny Secondary School where she focused primarily on business subjects.
After this, she wished to venture to London, England, to study midwifery. But at the time, her family could not afford it.
“I decided to look and see what options were here in Trinidad. There was COSTAATT (College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of TT) – I looked into their nursing institution. But then I came across an ad for Roytec in the newspaper where they were offering a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I opted to run with it.”
She said she asked both her immediate and extended family members for advice before she made a final decision.
“I went to my uncle – Ken McCree – and I said, ‘I saw something that I think I’m interested in doing. And he said, ‘Okay, let’s talk.’
“He spoke to my mom and said, ‘We will pay for your schooling.’ My mother’s family had a contracting business.”
After two years, she graduated with an associate’s degree, with one year remaining for earning her bachelor’s. But along came another hurdle.
“I could not have gone on to finish my final year because the business – at that time – really could not have funded me anymore. So, I stopped and went to work. I worked at the National Lotteries Control Board as an on-the-job trainee for some months.
“Coming closer to the following academic year, I said, ‘Mummy, I think I am ready to go back to school and finish my degree,’ and she said, ‘How will we get it done?’ I just went with God.”
She became emotional when recalling this chapter of her life to WMN. She said it was faith in God, determination and moral support from her family that kept her going.
“I went to Roytec in Port of Spain on Henry Street, and when I walked in, I went to find out about the registration process, how much it would cost and so on. I was signing up with not even a cent – not knowing where I was going to get the money from. It is such a testimony.
“So, I asked the customer service representative how much it would cost and what kind of payment plan they had, and she said, ‘Saleema, don’t you know the government has just introduced a programme called GATE (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme)?’ I was like, “GATE?’ and she brought the documents and explained to me what it was.”
With tears of joy in her eyes, she called her mother – who was at work – to inform her.
“I said, ‘Mummy, my last year is free!’ She said, ‘What you mean free?’ And then both of us were crying.”
Asked how she felt on graduation day, she said, “It felt awesome. That year was so trying. To get to class, I had to jump on a bus in Point Fortin at 4 am to head to Port of Spain. Sometimes I would go to class without money, sometimes with just enough to go on the bus to go up, then jump on the bus to come back down. My mother might pack a sandwich or something for me to eat.”
Sometimes, she would return home as late as 9 pm after evening classes.
“My mom was that pillar of strength. She would stay up with me in the wee hours of the morning when I was studying. I would say, ‘Mummy, go to sleep,’ but she would say no. She would sit there – sometimes falling asleep on herself – until whatever hour.”
After completing her degree, she went on to work in a range of fields from business administration and finance, to the energy sector and even contracting, until earning aldermanship in the borough corporation in 2016. She decided to pursue this full-time.
“Former mayor Abdon Mason and I worked together at Alutrint Ltd and he actually encouraged me to get involved in politics, and I told myself that as a young person, I needed to get involved.”
She married Nickcolson Thomas in 2012 and now has three children: Her nine-year-old son Tyshawn, five-year-old daughter Sariah, and her 16-year-old stepdaughter Tishell.
She said her children mean the world to her, and her husband has been supporting her “from day one.” She added that it isn’t particularly difficult to balance being a mother with her job roles.
“My children mean everything to me. Everything I do, I do with them in mind because I want them to be proud of their parents. I want to leave a legacy for them that they can be proud of.”
When she was nominated for and chosen to be deputy mayor in 2019, she was shocked, “…not questioning my ability but it wasn’t a major thing I was pushing for because I knew I was still relatively new. But I had the support of very close friends and family and they gave me the motivation to take that step.”
At her official swearing-in ceremony at the borough corporation's town hall in Mahaica on Wednesday, she had told Newsday she felt “humbled and honoured” to be chosen.
She said, “It's a historic moment for the people of Point Fortin. It gives that inspiration to young women that they too can aspire to one day become mayor, prime minister, president – whatever they aspire to be."
She said working under former mayor and now MP for the area Kennedy Richards Jr Richards was "wonderful," describing him as a "great leader.
“He is one that has a passion for Point Fortin. And working with him and seeing that desire and passion empowered me and inspired me to also have that drive. It's not about us here at council but it is about the people of Point Fortin.”
She added that she does not think she will experience additional pressure being a woman in a position of leadership.
"This is my second term at council and the first term as deputy and I haven't experienced any pressure with my peers or burgesses. It has always been very co-operative."
She said she feels proud of the significant growth and development she has witnessed in the borough throughout her life.
She has witnessed the inception of its Atlantic LNG plant, expansion of the business community, the creation of youth support groups and sporting groups, and the construction of the Clifton Hill Beach Resort. In addition, she has witnessed the creation of the Lake View Housing Development Complex, the beginning of the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway, the building and refurbishment of several community centres, and most recently – the opening of the new hospital.
She also said she is excited to continue the "many projects" that are already underway. This includes the refurbishment of the Mahaica Oval, the construction of a new fire station, enhancement and beautification of the Victor Chin Kit Park and the John Cupid Market Square, movement towards implementing more digital finance solutions, among other things. She also said agriculture and entrepreneurship are key factors of her vision for the borough, as she wants more people to “become more self-resilient.
“Like the Prime Minister once said, eat what you grow. We want to see more kitchen gardens, more home gardens. This is a project that the council would have wanted to previously embark on buy had to
“We want to encourage our young people, yes, you could study to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. But I don’t want us to just stop there. I want us to know the skills they were born with are the skills we can use to help provide for ourselves.”
She also said she "definitely" sees the possibility of Point Fortin eventually becoming a city.
"I see us heading in that direction in so many ways. We have a young council with great minds and they are so innovative."
Thomas hopes to be an inspiration to other young women. Asked what advice she has for them, she said trusting in God is crucial.
“If it wasn’t for him, don’t think any of this would have been possible. I say this with tears in my eyes because it’s only God that could have brought me this far.
“Young women: You can become more than what you even think. I want career women to know that they can be leaders in anything they do and still be able to manage their homes and families. It’s just a matter of structure.”
Above all, she said the borough of Point Fortin is doing – and will continue – to do well.
“It may not be the exact place we want or have in mind yet but we are definitely going somewhere.”