Interview with Community Leader Charlene Bathelus
(Community Leader Charlene Bathelus On Building A Career, Character And How To Fight Discouragement and Obstacles) Charlene Bathelus is a fighter, though you won’t find a gun in her drawer, nor a sword hanging on a rack behind her at her office in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her foes Obstacles and Discouragement couldn’t be fought with traditional weapons but with drive, determination, and an unrelenting spirit. A graduate of Kean University, and an adjunct college professor, Bathelus is the youngest American of Haitian descent to be elected for public office in Elizabeth (she is an elected official on the Elizabeth School Board). Bathelus never hides the pride she feels in being a community advocate and leader in the city she was born and raised. She works with teens and college students in the community, and works with organizations involved in substance abuse prevention. So, you were the oldest of three children growing up. Do you think that helped you built character? Absolutely! I believe that being the oldest of three children is one of the reasons I have been so successful thus far. Every parent has a preconceived notion of what their child will be when they grow up. First-time parents usually set high expectations, and fortunately for me, I was their “first trial.” Not only did they have high expectations for me, but they were strict and extremely over-protective of their first-born and only daughter. It was difficult growing up and having to follow what I felt were ridiculous rules and regulations, but as I grew older I began to appreciate them. I now appreciate the fact that my parents remained focused on those very high expectations that were set for me as well as my two siblings. They were consistent in their discipline and persistent in exposing me to the right things that would help mold and shape my character into what it is today.
What are some memories you have of growing up Haitian? Some of the memories I have of growing up Haitian are the Haitian Wise Tales that my parents use to tell me—and of course the many, many spankings that I got as a child—more than my brothers combined. If there is one thing Haitian parents do well, it is discipline; they can get very creative with that. In all seriousness, the memories I have growing up Haitian in the safety of my home, versus growing up Haitian in society, were opposites. At home, aside from the Haitian Wise Tales, my parents informed me of Haiti’s great history and contribution to one of the greatest Revolutionary movements to take place. At home and among family, being Haitian was something to be proud of and respected. Society, however tried to convince me differently. I am proud to say that their efforts to do so were in vain; instead I grew fonder of my culture and my Haitian History. Was it difficult and at times challenging? Yes! But, nothing comes easy. I first educated myself about Haiti and my people and then began to educate those around me who had bought into this false facade of what Haiti represents. Overall, I have great memories of growing up as a proud Haitian young lady. When you were attending Kean University for undergrad, did you already have your goals already clearly established? About 80% of students who enter college as a freshmen are undecided. When attending Kean University, I knew that I loved helping people. I remember my friends calling me for all sorts of advice: academic, relationship, career, faith, etc. Quick, think fast…how many personality traits can you list just off the top of your head? Spontaneous, outgoing, crazy, friendly, self centered, kind, strong, cranky, lazy, mean. You can probably rattle off a lot of different descriptions that apply to personality, however does each of these really represent a specific personality trait? These are things that intrigue my psyche. Majoring in a BA in Psychology and an MA in Organizational Psychology allowed me to explore the mental function and behavior in human beings.
What does beauty mean to you? When talking about the beauty of people, it is more than what can be seen with the human eye. When I think of that kind of beauty I think of something that stimulates the mind or heart of another. Beauty has a personality; it can be an action or simply the state of being. How many times have we seen a person who catches our attention because of their beautiful face but after approaching that very person we find their personality to be ugly, distasteful and unworthy of our presence. Does that ugly personality not cancel out their beauty? For me, it does—and so beauty is a package combined of the many things I listed. Your ability to care for others makes one beautiful. A person who is generous, thoughtful, loving, caring and selfless is beautiful! After your graduation, you decided that you were going to go to grad school. But the year you went to grad school is marked in history as being part of the years where things were rather difficult economically in the entire country. How can an individual determine whether more education is the way to go, or whether gaining more experience is the more appropriate path? I believe highly in education. Though education can be acquired outside of the classroom, I strongly believed that attending an educational institute was the right path for me. I decided early that not attending college no matter how difficult it was was not an option for me. My family also strongly believes in higher education and I cannot even imagine my parents supporting the idea of me not attending. During my years at Kean University I was able to balance education and experience very well. I believe that college years are more than just studying to begin and establish a career path. College is all about time management. It’s a place you learn to balance study time, work time and play time. This is where you get to meet and interact with people of all ethnicity and backgrounds throughout the world. During my time at Kean University, I met and am still in contact with a diverse group of individuals who I now have the privilege of calling my friends. Education within itself is an experience. You get what you put in. I could have easily attended for the task of simply obtaining a degree, but I did more than just that. I joined Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated and became the Vice President of the Student Body. I saw it as an opportunity to really broaden my horizons all while strengthening and putting my leadership skills to use. I got involved and that is when I begin to realize just how deep my passion for working with others was. I learned about other cultures and their way of life. I learned that being different was something positive and that our differences are what make people unique. I learned that my way is not always the right way and that there are other ways to handle things. I learned to be more open-minded and to be able to separate personal experience from fact. While at Kean University, I grew to love its culture and what it stands for. In fact, I became so in tuned and connected with the university that I returned not only for Graduate program but to teach as an Adjunct Professor as well. So to answer your question, was it indeed a struggle and a frightening experience due to the economic state of the country? Yes, but it was well worth it and I have no regrets.
I bet you were one of those girls whose self-esteem cup runneth over. Am I right? I wish that was the case, but it was not at all. Growing up I suffered from acne and blemishes which affected my self-esteem tremendously. We all know that when you first see someone the first thing that you notice is their face, so you can only imagine the effects it had on me as a young girl. Living in a society where a “perfect” and attractive physical image (most times unrealistic) is praised, acne was not a good problem to have at all. As the years went by I decided to accept it but work on it. During that process I began to realize that beauty really is skin deep. I began to realize that people saw me how I saw myself. I began to realize that no matter what I looked like physically I was still a beautiful person. I do believe that there are things that we all dislike about ourselves and that is fine. The problem becomes when you hate the things about yourself that you cannot change. We should learn to accept and love those things. Now there are things that we dislike about ourselves that can be changed and that is what we should focus on. My skin for instance was one of those things and so I decided to attack and change that problem that caused me to think less of myself.
It’s often been said that over the course of every successful person’s journey, there’s always this moment when discouragement totally takes over. Have you had such moments in your life? Most certainly! In 2012, I became the first newly elected person of Haitian descent to ever hold public office in the city of Elizabeth, NJ. I experienced discouragement full-blown during this time. Negative letters were written and posted against me; which were then spread amongst the Haitian churches and community. I felt hopeless, defeated and traumatized because my own community chose to take a stance against me. It was beyond hurtful, but that time in my life brought me closer than ever to God. I gave Him my all and in return He gave me the strength I needed to keep striving for success because that was one of the purposes He had for me! How did you get the courage to keep striving forward? After the election was over, I realized that Unity is essential in the Haitian community. Unity amongst all cultures is crucial because it shows how unbroken or undivided we are. For many years, I witnessed my community dividing to conquer and it has never worked to our benefit. I pray that one day, we will be able to come together and support our fellow Haitian counterparts in their endeavors. It saddens my heart when we continuously divide and prove other communities right. I want to be able to rely on my community through the struggle, whether through fire or cooling water. Haiti’s motto “L’Union Fait La Force” is used to signify the strength in uniting for the common good of the people. “Unity is Strength” has become my motto which has allowed me to bring together many of those who did not support me prior to being elected whereas now, we unite for the common good of our community! As a Haitian leader, that is exactly what I want all mankind to do, UNITE, by committing to support and encourage others to do well.
Where do you get your overall drive and determination from? My answer is rather simple; I get my drive and determination from God! There are days that I am physically tired and emotionally drained but God continuously fuels me and empowers me to move on and move forward. If it weren’t for Him, I am certain that I would not be where I am today. He is the best planner of life and I am grateful that I grew up in a household where I was taught to trust him to be faithful and just and to lean on his power. I also empower myself by constantly reading my “Prophecy to Myself” which states: “This is my year, hour and season to be abundantly blessed by God! It’s my time for a divine turn-around in every circumstance in my life! I cannot, and will not be denied!”
You are a Volunteer and Community Partnership Coordinator with Prevention Links and you oversee two community civic action groups in two cities in New Jersey…namely Plainfield and Rahway. Yes, in this role, I am charged with enhancing positive characteristics in people, educating the masses about the importance of community involvement, instilling professional values and helping others commit to a healthy lifestyle, as well as provide information regarding substance abuse prevention. How can a person know whether they’re on the right path in life, career-wise? You’ll know if you are on the right path if you are extremely happy with your career. There are times when we find ourselves being unhappy at a place where we once experienced joy. It does not necessarily mean that you are on the wrong path but perhaps you have reached the point in time where you must reinvent yourself in order to revive that joy. I love pinwheels! They always bring me to a happy moment in life. So let’s imagine a pinwheel. Pinwheels for me signify happiness, carefree mindset, simple pleasures, not taking myself too seriously, and a reminder to inhale fully and gently exhale. When I think of the right career path it somewhat resembles the turning of a pinwheel. The whole journey is a cycle; it has its highs and its lows; it has its still and twirling moments. The wind causes the pinwheel to move! When speaking of the right career path, your wind is found in your innate passion and drive. That unavoidable Zeal should cause you to move.
A career is constant change and growth. No matter the job, there is always more to learn, more to do and higher levels to be reached. The right career path will bring you joy and pleasure. That joy isn’t based on a high income but the fulfillment you get while performing your duties. I know people who help others on a daily basis and receive no income and they seem more at peace than those I know who have a high salary. The difference is one group is fulfilling that deeply rooted passion and calling and that’s where the joy comes from; the other group work for a paycheck to pay their bills and maintain a lifestyle. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that at all. I simply want to make it clear that the right path will not always be glamorous, though it would be nice. However, it will always be beneficial and fulfilling! Simply put, the right career path somewhat resembles a journey on a pinwheel.
From what you’ve seen, what makes a great leader? A great leader is one who is strong, steadfast, relatable, caring, trusting, responsible and accountable. A great leader is an individual who is knowledgeable about the field he/she leads. A great leader is someone who is able to facilitate and resist dictatorship. A great leader is one who is able to balance being a leader and a team player. He/she recognizes and acknowledges the strengths of those who follow. Based on those strengths he/she confidently delegates tasks and responsibilities to the appropriate people, fully trusting in them to complete them effectively. Overall, a great leader will have the ability and humbleness to not only lead but to also follow! When was the last time you traveled to Haiti? My first and only time that I traveled to Haiti was in June 2010 for my grandmother’s funeral. Exactly, five months after the tragic 7.0 magnitude earthquake. I prepared myself to see the worst. I thought there would be rubble, plywood structures and even dead bodies everywhere. To my surprise, I saw a beautiful country in need of some loving hands. Many of the places I traveled warmed my heart and others tore my heart apart and brought me to tears. The tenacity of the Haitian people quickly turned my pessimistic outlook into an optimistic vision for my country. My vision for Haiti is for it to be recovered and restored so that it can be known as the GEM of the Caribbean again.
What would you say to someone who wants to reach the same career heights as you? What is stopping you? Go for it! When speaking to youth, I make it a point to let them know that I do not want them to achieve what I have achieved, I want them to surpass my accomplishments and strive for much more. We are all stars in our own way! So let your light shine on. A quote that I live by: “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m Possible’!”…Audrey Hepburn.