A few months ago, Luisa Bodden was contemplating a bleak Christmas.
The mother-of-five was struggling to cope. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in the year and going through chemotherapy while looking after her elderly parents in a home that had fallen into disrepair was taking its toll.
She and her three younger children shared two small beds, with mattresses that were still riven with mould from Hurricane Ivan. Rot was creeping through the carpets, paint was peeling from the walls and the single bathroom, shared among nine people, was barely functional. Sometimes a bucket and a hose had to do the job.
Now, thanks to a community-wide volunteer effort coordinated by charity Acts of Random Kindness, things are beginning to look a little brighter.
In the space of six weeks, the George Town home has been transformed. New bunk beds have been built for the children, the floor has been re-tiled and the walls have been painted a bright, optimistic red.
For the first time, there is a washing machine in the house. Alterations have been made to allow her mother Eloisa, who suffers from Parkinson’s and is in a wheelchair, to get around.
Luisa plans to cook Christmas dinner for her family on a new stove.
“Daddy’s going to do his beef and I might try to do a ham,” she said. “I am hoping I can keep my strength to bake.
“With all the renovations and everything, things are looking a hundred times better than they were a month ago.”
Tara Nielsen, who runs the charity ARK, said the community had helped transform the lives of Luisa and her family. She said donations of time, work and money had poured in from the moment the appeal had gone up on ARK’s Facebook page.
“It just goes to show your reputation precedes you. They have a reputation of being a wonderful family and everyone wanted to get on board and help,” Nielsen said.
‘Things got harder in Cayman’
Richard Bodden bought the house on Whitman Seymour Drive for $6,000 in the early eighties. He worked on it himself to put in new walls and transform it into a place where his family could live.
Luisa grew up here, in the same room she lives in now with her own children.
Over time, with more mouths to feed, as age and illness caught up with her parents, keeping the house in shape dropped down the list of priorities.
“Things got harder in Cayman. Everything got more expensive and it just got tougher to keep up,” she said.
Luisa was between jobs when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Between regular bouts of radiation therapy, it has been impossible to find work.
What money the family gets from social services is quickly spent on water, lights and food.
Despite the hardships, the family remains upbeat. Richard leafs through an album of old photographs to find a picture of himself and his wife in their youth.
“I was 19 when we got married,” he says, beaming.
“I can tell you, you don’t need money to have a happy marriage. It doesn’t come into it.”
Later, he wheels his wife down a plyboard ramp into the front yard where they pause for a second in the shade of a large banana tree.
Across the street, a skinny horse is tied up next to some chicken coops in a lot strewn with scrapped vehicles and construction equipment. Down the road is Welly’s Cool Spot, then A.L Thompson’s hardware store and not much farther away is the thriving commercial hub of central George Town.
Extreme poverty and extreme wealth are sometimes found in uncomfortably close quarters in Grand Cayman.
Part of ARK’s mission, said Nielsen, is to bring those two worlds together.
The charity’s Cayman CASA programme links businesses and community volunteers with families in need and puts them to work to transform their homes.
In this case, she said hundreds of people had come forward to help.
“When people saw the images of the house and heard the story of this family, the donations just poured in.”
The Men’s Shed built the closets and a new wheelchair ramp. Paint Pros provided supplies and sent its workers to join volunteers painting the home. ITC tile did the floors. A.L. Thompson’s gave a 50% discount on all materials.
Luisa and her children picked up tools and brushes and helped the volunteers, which included neighbours and friends, as well as regular people who had responded to the Facebook appeal.
“We always welcome financial contributions but we have found that people get a lot out of coming and physically helping out,” Nielsen said.
“It is just so powerful because they make the human connection. They see a side of Cayman they would never really see and it really inspires them to come back and help year after year.
“It really bridges the gap as well between expats and locals, because they each see the human side and make those connections.”
The work continues
Work will continue in the yard in the new year and ARK is hoping to move Luisa’s 6-year-old son Adriano into its education mentorship programme, which helps fund tutoring to allow children from poor backgrounds to keep up in school.
They will also provide help to the family with accessing government support as Luisa goes through cancer treatment.
“We try to build a relationship with the families we help and stay involved in their lives,” said Nielsen.
Poverty, housing, health, employment and education are all inter-linked issues that impact the same families in the same ways over multiple generations.
“We try to work with the whole family and do what we can to break that cycle, Nielsen added.
New year, new hope
For Eloisa, the last few months have been overwhelming. She has seen her home and her hopes for her family transformed.
“I really was surprised because I never knew anything about it,” she said, as she surveyed her new home last week.
“I was hoping to do something for Christmas but we had no money to do it.
“It is really good to see that we are getting this house.”