The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention, Oscar Wilde famously said. It is this sentiment that has informed and shaped the work of Cayman charity Acts of Random Kindness over the past seven years.
ARK started out with a half-dozen or so women who would meet once a month for lunch at one of their homes and take turns presenting issues or topics close to their hearts to the rest of the group. The money they would normally have spent on lunch in a restaurant was instead collected and directed to these causes.
At the most recent lunch, held at the home of Houria Fresard, who co-founded ARK with Tara Nielsen, more than 100 people attended and the money raised went to benefit 6-year-old Hannah Meeson, who is battling pediatric cancer.
ARK has certainly grown and the scope of their work has expanded into a variety of programs, but at its core the aim remains the same: to change lives for the better, one act at a time.
Who does ARK help?
Although those living comfortable lives do not necessarily come into contact with them, numerous families in Cayman live in poverty, often lacking the money to put food on the table, say Nielsen and Fresard.
The majority of the cases that ARK is called upon to help involve young, single mothers, struggling to raise children alone, pay the rent and find a job.
“They’re often really young and have grown up in an abusive home. When they meet a man, it seems like an escape route to them. Then they end up pregnant, and the man disappears,” Nielsen says. “Of all the families we have helped, there has only been one case where there was a man in the picture.”
It’s a pattern that tends to be repeated, with young women often having several children by different fathers. While some might say that these young mothers should know better, ARK is nonjudgmental.
“If there are children involved, we simply cannot walk away,” Nielsen says. “And once we have established a relationship with them, we can start to guide and advise them.”
Every case referred to them is assessed individually, and the founders say they just feel when it is right to help.
How they help
When a family is referred to them, Nielsen and Fresard always visit the home to make sure they are genuinely in need. The assistance they provide is temporary, designed to ease the strain for a period of time – usually three months – so that the family has a chance to get back on its feet.
“We never give money,” says Fresard. “We pay utility bills or give them food vouchers [which they can’t spend on alcohol or cigarettes], or bring them groceries. If there are medical conditions for which they need to travel overseas, we can pay for their flights and so on.”
More recently, through the Cayman Casa program, makeovers have transformed homes, some of which were damaged in Hurricane Ivan and never repaired. The homes often had infestations and mold but were cleaned, renovated and newly furnished to provide a proper living space for the families.
Local businesses are coming on board with home renovations as part of their corporate social responsibility programs.
“Sometimes the money is there, but the manpower isn’t,” Nielsen says. “Now that corporations are encouraging employees to do some community service during work time, it’s really transformed things. And once the volunteers see and smell and feel the reality of it, and when they see children living in these conditions, they really want to help.”
Rather than committing to providing long-term financial support, ARK prefers to perform these single acts that can dramatically change the quality of life and the outlook of a person or family.
Although the majority of the cases they help with are people living in poverty, sometimes they help people or families in crisis, Nielsen says. ARK recently was criticized when they organized a fundraiser for Hannah Meeson, whose family apparently was thought not to be struggling financially.
“It wasn’t about the money. It was about this family that was suffering and that needed to be lifted up by a community,” Nielsen says. “People wanted to help – are we supposed to tell them they can’t?”
ARK’s other programs
ARK also operates an air miles program through which residents can donate their Cayman Airways miles to the charity and these can then be passed on to those in need.
Every Christmas, they also run the Giving is Receiving food and toy drive. This will begin again in November this year, and aims to ensure that families in need have enough to eat and gifts to unwrap at Christmas. Last year 175 families received bags of groceries, food vouchers and gifts.
The Adopt a Family program pairs young mothers in need with families who are not in need. In this way, an older mother can become a mentor for a younger mother, and her children’s toys, books, clothes and equipment can also be passed down to the families in need.
Despite the numerous cases that come their way, the generous donations they receive and the variety of programs they have in place, Neilsen and Houria are committed to keeping ARK a small and personal organization.
“We know the dangers of getting bigger,” Nielsen says. “There are too many people involved in every decision. You lose the heart of it when you get too big.”
By remaining small, with just the two of them running it, Nielsen and Houria can act quickly, without having to seek approval from a board of directors.
Indeed, other nonprofit organizations call on them for help when urgent assistance is needed because they know ARK can act immediately.
It’s a conscious choice they have made: rather than trying to do too much and doing it poorly, they choose to take on less, but do it well.