Dust fills the air of the small West Bay yard as hordes of volunteers get to work amid the steady rhythm of pounding hammers. Some are painting, some are putting up dry wall, some are clearing junk from the overgrown yard.
There is a squeal as cockroaches crawl from beneath an old, wooden panel. Then it is back to work.
Around 50 people are helping on the project. It should be chaos, but everybody seems to know their role and is going about their work quietly and proficiently.
All the volunteers are financial advisors and their families, in Grand Cayman for a conference at The Ritz-Carlton. They have come straight from a business meeting in the morning at the luxury hotel to another side of the island – a side that most business visitors don’t see.
Their job is to help transform a shipping container into a home for a West Bay mum and three children.
The project is the latest initiative from Cayman charity Acts of Random Kindness, which helps families-in-need with emergency housing.
In this case, nine family members were living in a small, inherited home in Boatswain’s Bay without access to proper bathroom facilities.
ARK stepped in at the end of last year to help convert the container into a home for the mother, Crystal, and her children.
Tara Nielsen, of ARK, said they had a waiting list of housing projects but they had wanted to help.
“We were so impressed at how much work she had done herself in beginning this journey. She was ingenious in the way she would get supplies and get things done. She is really the matriarch of her extended family,” Nielsen said.
“She didn’t let on how much she was struggling but this kind of project is really insurmountable for one person. It takes a village.”
Bringing the village to Cayman
Fortunately, the project coincided with the visit of Commonwealth Financial to Grand Cayman.
The company is an independent broker dealer that has financial planners all over the US. They meet six times a year – often somewhere exotic – as an ‘awards trip’ for their financial advisors.
“Every place we have a trip, every beautiful spot, we spend a day doing service,” said Veronica Bloom, whose husband, CEO Wayne Bloom, was hanging drywall in the converted container.
Guests on the trip can choose to go kayaking, snorkelling, or sightseeing, among a number of options. But it is the ‘give-back’ day that fills up quickest, she said.
“They want to give a day of their vacation to leave that place a little better than when they started,” she said.
Any project of this size, involving this many volunteers with such a mix of skill levels, requires a ringmaster. In this case, Bill McDermott is the guy who gets things done.
Commonwealth has worked on more than 30 similar projects in places around the world, from Portugal to Costa Rica, and he has coordinated them all.
“It is a well-oiled machine,” Veronica Bloom said.
“He comes down months before, finds the right project where we can take 50 of the most type A, ready-to-go people and do the most good.”
Part of McDermott’s role as the advance party was to ensure everything was in place to maximise the volunteers’ time on the day.
He had been coordinating with ARK since the end of last year to ensure the container was weather-proof and the roof was on, so his crew could begin installing insulation and putting up walls.
He also ensured the right tools and the right schedule were in place to accomplish the most.
“In the few hours we spend here, we get a lot done,” he says.
“We managed to paint the entire exterior of this house along with the interior and exterior of the front house.
“We have hung about 30 sheets of drywall, put in 20 rolls of insulation and completed the yard clean-up.”
He said the project was popular with Commonwealth’s staff.
“People realise how fortunate they are staying at The Ritz and they want to give back.”
Nielsen estimates the contribution of Commonwealth’s volunteers has ‘fast forwarded’ the project by at least four months.
ARK has been working since October with local contractors to build a new bathroom and kitchen on to the main house and begin work on the shipping container conversion. Getting the house into a better condition, with a proper bathroom, has given them breathing space to raise the funds and finish the container project.
“At least now, we know Crystal and the children are in a better environment and we have less of a time crunch,” she said.
Work to do
There are still funds to be raised and work to be done to finish outfitting the container-home and get it connected to the power grid.
Nielsen said the whole project was important because it was on family land that would always be a ‘safe harbour’ for Crystal and her wider family. But she will be especially happy when the container home is completed.
“This is going to be hers,” she said. “Finally she will have the independence she has been fighting for, for so long.”
Containers could provide housing solution
Converted shipping containers could help provide a cost-effective solution for emergency housing issues in Cayman, according to non-profit Acts of Random Kindness. The charity is midway through one of the first such conversions in Cayman.
The project, in West Bay, has involved renovating and expanding a disused container to build a home for a mother and her three children.
Conversions of this kind are beginning to be used all over the world, and Tara Nielsen, director of ARK, would like to see the option explored in a bigger way in Cayman.
“I would love to have 1,000 of them,” she said.
“These container homes – once they are converted – would make an amazing home for a lot of the families that we meet.”
She said there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of families in Cayman living in unfit housing or struggling to pay rent on a Needs Assessment Unit stipend that has not kept up with the increase in the cost of living.
“I get a lot of emails from people saying, can you buy me a container?” she said. Converting containers is nothing new in Cayman. They are often fitted with windows, air conditioning and plumbing, and used as offices on development sites.
While they may not make the most luxurious homes, Nielsen believes with the right level of work they could help provide safe living conditions for hundreds of needy families in Cayman.