The house that love built

She may have lost her home in Hurricane Ivan, but 80-year-old Miss Cleo Conolly has no shortage of friends.

The construction team with Miss Cleo

The construction team with Miss Cleo, sitting, are from left, Kris Bergstrom, Mr. Brown, Carma Peterson, Ken Peterson, and Debi Bergstrom.

For the past two weekends a group of up to 50 volunteers has been building her house back from scratch at her beautiful sea-side site in East End.

‘I’m so excited; I don’t know what to do or say,’ said a grateful Miss Cleo who was seated in the shade beside the construction site Saturday.

What could be called a ‘project of love’ was being undertaken by a group of people, spearheaded by the Bergstrom family who ran the resort hotel known as ‘The Tortuga Club’ (currently the site of Morritt’s Tortuga Club) in East End, which opened back in 1963.

Miss Cleo has worked at the resort for 40 years, under both ownerships, originally as a chef and more recently as a greeter. Her brother Frank Conolly was bartender at the resort.

‘When we saw she had lost everything we said we had to do something,’ said Mrs. Debi Bergstrom who, with her husband Kris, owns Edgewater Development Ltd. So, their company co-ordinated the project and provided management, labour and some of the materials, along with getting great support from various suppliers and members of the community.

‘Miss Cleo gave so much of herself to the family over the years that this is our way of giving something back,’ said Debi.

This volunteer project undertaken by ‘Friends of Miss Cleo’ began the weekend before last, when the foundations were laid, and on last Saturday and Sunday the walls and roof were to be erected. The wall frames had been pre-built at a work site in order to save time on the project, which will continue into next weekend. The plan is for Miss Cleo to move into her new home on September 11, the day before she lost her home last year.

The hard working team includes family members James and Leslie Bergstrom; Bob and Suzy Soto; children of Kris and Debi (Kody, Matthew, Briana); Barrie and Chuck Quappe with children Zak and Teri. Other family members are Karie Bergstrom and Sheree Ebanks, behind the ‘Spirit of Cayman’ book. Bobbie Bothwell and Ben Cummings (children of Karie) also volunteered their time and energy to the project..

Leading a construction team is Ken Peterson and his wife Carma along with Mr. Brown and Dick Wilhelm. In charge of the electrical side of things is Rob Duty of Electrical Enterprises Ltd. while Henry Conolly is doing the plumbing. Phoenix Construction Ltd. also turned out to lend a hand, having heard about the project on radio.

Miss Cleo’s home was destroyed last September during Hurricane Ivan. Luckily, she had been off island in Boston when the devastation happened, and when she finally got home 10 days after the storm and viewed what had been her home, all she could say was ‘My, my, my’. The house, which was made of wattle and daub, was 118 years old and had been Miss Cleo’s home from the age of seven. The house had survived the 1932 storm, but Category Five Hurricane Ivan was too much of a force to be reckoned with.

Miss Cleo has been living between the homes of her nephew Dawson Whittaker and niece Ann Kirchman, which are across the road from where her own house originally stood and is being re-built..

What little possessions that could be salvaged were, including some dresses and a lot of broken crockery found underneath piles of sand. The box of crockery pieces is to be made into a mosaic table for Miss Cleo, so something new will come out of the past.

Many of the popular lady’s friends from abroad also rallied around after the hurricane, sending her clothes and jewellery to replace those she had lost.

Although she may be 80 years old, for Miss Cleo a brand new phase of her life beckons in her new house, built, as it is being, on the love and respect she has gained from others over her long and fruitful life.