Photographs By Kyle Norton
ROMONA NORTON may have a megawatt smile and legs for days, but her heart is her hottest feature. She’s not only making a difference this holiday season—she’s helping to KICK-START A NEW GENERATION OF GLOBAL GIVING
Let’s get this out of the way: Romona Norton looks like a movie star. And with a couple of films under her belt (go ahead, Google her IMDB; yes, right now), she kind of is. Gliding into Greenwich events with her shiny locks and signature Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo—of course she owns more than one—the woman certainly cuts a chic figure. Which is why you might choke on your spiked nog knowing that this movie star, this tux-wearing goddess of Greenwich, grew up plucking chickens in Guyana and had to flee at age twenty-one for fear of being kidnapped. Take that to your producer.
Drama aside, Romona’s upbringing deeply informs how she and husband, Jeffrey, raise their daughters Kala, eleven, and Lila, nine, especially come Christmastime. “I grew up in Guyana among a wide mix of ethnic and religious customs,” Romona says, her voice a hushed cascade of melodic vowels that could lull even the crankiest child to sleep. “Christmas was more of an adopted holiday than an indigenous one, but in Guyana, everyone usually celebrated all the holidays regardless of their faith. Christmas was simple for us, and my present was usually some small toys, half an apple and some grapes, which at the time was a major indulgence for a young girl in Guyana,” she remembers. “When I got older, I was allowed to pick one present from my parents’ grocery store. I always chose a perfume set.”
The grocery store, called VanRo (a fusion of her name and older sister Vanita’s), was attached to Romona’s house and opened when she was twelve. For a girl who sold chickens and pineapples since age nine, it laid the literal foundation for her growing work ethic. After homework, afternoons were spent working at the store. “It was the main food supply for most of the villages in our area, so we were always open throughout the holidays, including Christmas Eve and a half-day on Christmas,” she says plainly, without the woe-is-me edge one might expect. “On weekends, I worked on my family’s chicken farm, plucking and packaging.”
SEASONS OF SERVICE
You’d think with the stress of running a business that was the lifeline to an entire region, Romona’s family would take a pause, rest when they could. Especially given their unnerving reality—back then, if your parents owned a business, kidnapping was a thing, a threat, an ever-present possibility. But laying low just wasn’t the Ramgobin way; there was too much love to give. “Doing volunteer work was a key part of Christmas and the rest of the year,” Romona says. “From my youngest days, my parents worked regularly with local orphanages to help them provide for the children.” Along with her mother and sister, preteen Romona would get up at 4 a.m. and prep food for orphanages. “I was always the cook and Vanita cleaned because she was terrible at cooking, and she’s still a terrible cook to this day,” Romona whisper-laughs, betraying a certain lovely, untainted girlishness. “On my birthday, I would wake up to cook for 100 to 150 people, because it is believed in my culture that the more people you feed on your birthday, the more blessings will come to you. On Hindu holidays we would get up and cook as well,” she adds. For a moment, she appears almost astonished by the memory. “I have to be honest, it was exhausting. I remember going to school at 9 a.m. and all I wanted to do was sleep. When you’re twelve and thirteen, you don’t see the big picture,” she says, shaking her head. But the tradition stuck. To this day, Romona still sends the Guyana orphanage ice cream or cake on her birthday as well as on her children’s.
While she may not be the “tough cookie” she considers her mother to be, Romona instinctively carries her torch. “It is important for me to pass on this act of kindness to my kids as my parents did with me,” she says. Putting her accounting and marketing degree (earned primarily in Guyana with her last year at NYU) to good use, Romona galvanizes our already philanthropic community to give and gets the job done, often paying for shipping out of her own pocket. “Every year, we team up as a family and collect, pack and ship donations to orphanages in South America in October that arrive the first week of December,” says Romona. “My girls help with all aspects of this work, including recruiting fellow students and their families at Greenwich Academy to provide clothes, books, toys, sports equipment and other items as donations. When we have enough, we bring it all to Queens where we send it to the orphanages through Laparkan and DHL.” She ships everything in paper and plastic barrels, the latter of which serves a dual-purpose: to collect rainwater that can be boiled and used as drinking water.
For Romona’s family, life lessons don’t end locally. After spending Christmas Day with her sister’s family on Long Island, Team Norton packs their bags and lets their passports lead the way. “Over the years we have used Christmas and other school breaks to travel extensively through the Caribbean, South and Central America, Europe and Asia,” says Romona, who never had the opportunity to travel growing up. “All of my free time and school breaks were used for work at the market,” she says, and considers these immersive adventures gifts in themselves. This holiday, they’ll be going to Belize and reaching out to an orphanage during their stay. “You’d be shocked at how easy it is to ask your hotel’s concierge to connect you. It’s often forty kids or more in one orphanage so the need is always there. It could be sharing a meal or simply paying for supplies. Twenty tubes of toothpaste go a long way.”
These trips are also teeing up her girls—and their peers—for a greater purpose. “Over the past several years I have been working with Trekking for Kids, a nonprofit that assists orphanages throughout the world,” says Romona, who has organized groups of volunteers to raise donations and volunteer at orphanages in Ethiopia, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico and Portugal.
In the summer of 2020, Romona, her eldest daughter, Kala, and a team of five Greenwich mothers and daughters will visit an orphanage in South America for four to five days. It will be the fifth-grade girls’ first foray into volunteering in a third world country, complete with construction jobs, new kitchen installs, fence-work…and heightened responsibility. “It’s the kind of trip that requires a level of discipline and commitment,” explains Romona. “If I say we need to get in the car or if I say you need to paint this or help in the garden in a certain way, they need to have the maturity to execute on it, instead of goofing off and spraying each other with water.”
Romona’s seriousness underscores not just her approach to charity work, but the holiday spirit she hopes Kala and Lila will wholeheartedly embrace. “As my daughters get older, Christmas is moving away from a time for presents and becoming an opportunity to understand the different ways of life around the globe and provide assistance where we can,” she says, eyes bright and unblinking. “I think it’s important for my girls to view the world as their neighborhood.”
The Santa Cause
5 EASY WAYS TO GIVE LOCALLY THIS SEASON
Ronald McDonald House
Shop, prep, and cook a brunch or dinner for twenty-five at theValhalla location. Kids are welcome helpers. Holiday meals book up in advance, but you can also reserve a date for 2020. Groups of five to six are preferred. rmh-ghv.org
Help those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless by fulfilling a wish list for a child through [email protected]. You can also donate to the Holiday Gift Collection and volunteer at The Big Wrap, its annual gift-wrapping party. inspiricact.org
Domus creates gift lists for over 1,000 struggling youth in Stamford and New Haven, offers a Holiday Mall volunteer experience in mid-December, where Domus families can “shop” for gifts and even the opportunity to “adopt a family” for the season. domuskids.org
Kids in Crisis
KIC provides free, round-the-clock crisis counseling and temporary shelter for infants, children and teens. If you are interested in fulfilling a child’s holiday wish list or providing a meal for a family, contact [email protected].
Greenwich Social Services
Spring for a gift for a resident seeking self-sufficiency and economic independence. Gloves, hats or scarves can be dropped off at the Greenwich Housing Authority Office at 249 Milbank Avenue by Friday, December 13. You may also provide a Christmas food basket by emailing [email protected].