The sound of Beto Anglin’s truck idling in the narrow back lanes of Grand Cayman is music to the ears of the residents on his delivery route.
It is a sound that means they will not go hungry today.
A gregarious West Bayer, in mirrored shades and a mask converted from a bandana, Anglin holds court about the disconnect he sees in Cayman society as the scent of home-cooked chicken drifts in from the back seat.
“I think a lot of people are better off and self-sufficient and have very little clue or care to educate themselves on the plight that is out there,” he says.
“Most people don’t understand it till it affects them or someone they care about.”
Anglin is out of work himself. His wife lost her job amid the COVID-19 business shutdown and he splits his time between working with her to home-school their five children and running food deliveries for ARK.
Today he is delivering 49 food packages – a soup, a hot cooked meal and a $25 Foster’s gift card – to 11 households.
That’s just a fraction of the meals that will go out across Grand Cayman.
Currently, just over 2,000 people get two deliveries each week from ARK. For some of them, charity organisers believe this is the only food they get.
The level of need out there is staggering, says Anglin, as he pulls into the driveway of the first home on his list. Usually he places the food on the porch and gets on with his route, but today the home-owner, Jan Smith, comes to the door and passes the time with us.
A small child rides on her hip as she explains the difficulties her family is going through as she cares for her husband and tries to look out for her children and grandchildren.
A little income is coming in from a couple of tenants, she says, but that is not what it was, and the donation is gratefully received.
“It really helps a lot,” she says, lifting the Styrofoam containers of soup and bottles of juice onto a table in the hallway.
“My husband is sick. I can’t get to go out there during the time that the governor give us through the alphabet orders to get food and pay bills.”
As he reverses on to the main road, Anglin is eyeing up the mangoes ripening on the tree that covers most of the yard.
“I got a couple of those coming to me,” he laughs.
“None of us have got much, but what we have we share. We are Caymanian, man. We always help each other, especially in times of need.
“Obviously, I don’t have the money but I have the time, I have a vehicle. I am able to help in a different way,” he says.
Praying to stay healthy enough to work
At the next stop, Anglin leaves the meals on the doorstep and is about to make a call to ensure someone can pick it up before the dogs get into it, when Illirine Knight pulls into the driveway with three of her four children. The older boys are carrying fishing rods.
“They caught three or four small ones, so I think if they keep going they will get enough for a meal,” she says.
Knight works as a cleaner at Health City Cayman Islands.
Even though she is working overtime to pay the bills, the money coming in is not enough. Her oldest daughter, who also lives at home, lost her job as a hotel receptionist, and she has two grandchildren to take care of as well.
Knight was tested for COVID-19 after the initial outbreak at the hospital and thankfully her results came back negative.
Though she is worried about contracting the virus, she is more concerned about not being able to work.
“We don’t want to get infected and come and have our family infected,” she said. “It is really scary, but it is a job we have to do because we have mouths to feed.”
Without the help from ARK, she is not sure how she would manage. Every day she takes her vitamins and prays not to get sick, so she can continue to work.
“I have to give God thanks, grace and glory, and try to keep myself healthy. I drink a lot of water and try to stay healthy.”
Anglin is a larger-than-life figure in his Raider Nation cap and matching jersey, a crucifix dangling from the gold chain around his neck. He gets a kick out of doing his part for the people in his neighbourhood and he calls out a greeting to nearly every passerby as he winds along the route.
Though he is happy to be of service, he is not convinced the help he and other volunteers are providing is enough.
As he travels, he sees houses in disrepair, homes without proper access to electricity or water, and so many people reliant on charity to eat.
It makes him think twice about his own situation.
“I could be doing better but my situation pales in comparison to others. There is a lot of people doing a lot worse than I am,” he says.
The Kindness Kitchen
At Deckers restaurant on West Bay Road, the chairs and tables are stacked away and rainwater pools in the outdoor dining area.
There have been no customers and no income coming in for months but the chefs are busier than ever. As the headquarters of ARK’s Kindness Kitchen, the restaurant prepares hundreds of soups and hot meals every day.
At the back of the building, Neil Rooney sits at a small table, feeling the breeze from an electric fan as he inputs numbers into a laptop computer.
Neil and his wife Kelly are a husband-and-wife partnership that has taken organisational responsibility for the food programme.
With their day jobs on hold, they each put in 50-60 hours a week supporting ARK’s operation.
It is not the time commitment that worries them, it is the thought that they may have to stop.
The volunteer effort has developed into a mini-business, pulling in meals from restaurants around the island and relying on more than 30 volunteer staff, like Anglin, to deliver and distribute food to homes from West Bay to North Side.
Though much of the labour and some of the food is donated, the cost of the operation runs to nearly $100,000 every month – every cent coming from private sector donors.
“It all costs money and it is only a matter of time before our benefactors say ‘we have given all we can’,” says Rooney.
Right now, he believes there is enough in the kitty to go through to July, but the need is continuing to grow.
Flattening the curve
At this point, everyone is familiar with the term ‘flattening the curve’ used by public health officials to describe the strategy of slowing the spread of the coronavirus and preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
As far as the virus is concerned, this appears to have been successful for now.
But Rooney points to another graph illustrating a different problem where the need is only growing.
His bar chart shows the total number of meals going out of ARK’s kitchen has gone from around 2,000 per week to 6,000 per week in the space of a month.
Very soon, he warns, ARK and the restaurants that support it will be overwhelmed.
“We need to flatten this curve as well,” he says.
“Our phones are ringing every day from people that need help. This is much bigger than people realise.”
Rooney is also painfully aware that ARK’s deliveries are really the bare minimum for the families it serves. Each person gets four meals per week and a $25 Foster’s card to share among the family.
“I know, for a lot of them, this is the only food they are getting,” he says.
Sisters help spread hope in their community
At the back of McField Square in George Town, in a rugged courtyard strewn with beach chairs and picnic tables, Denia Walker struggles to make herself heard over the squawks of crowing roosters.
Like many people in this neighbourhood, Walker, who was working as a courier, lost her job when the lockdown began.
“I see the Cayman Islands doing a great job about the health part. Thank God for that,” she says, “but it is what happens in the economic part… I fear more what’s happening outside, I don’t fear so much the virus.”
Walker and her sister Oneyda Esperanza Calderon came to the Cayman Islands from Honduras more than 20 years ago.
They are stalwarts of this small community. Whenever ARK or the neighbourhood church drops by with food, they distribute it among a dozen or so families in the area.
“The most important thing is the children,” says Calderon, “They are not going to school. The parents have no jobs and they can’t go nowhere to pick up food.”
Calderon is also out of work. She says she applied to the Needs Assessment Unit for support at the end of April and is waiting to hear back. She believes many in the area are in the same situation.
Despite their struggles, the sisters see it as an honour every Tuesday and Friday afternoon to deliver food from ARK around the neighbourhood.
“It is mostly the children has been suffering. They come round to my little car and ask for the food and we deliver it for them with this nice organisation,” says Walker.
Even with the support of ARK and the church, the sisters worry that some are not getting enough to eat. But the charity they have received helps them stay optimistic.
Calderon points out that her name, Esperanza, means hope in English.
“We can’t lose the hope,” she says. “We survive because of that, we need to have hope every day.”
Stranded without income
A few streets away, Norlan Jimenez is carving up barbecue chicken to share among a group of Nicaraguans living in a block of lime-green apartments on Avon Way.
It’s an old neighbourhood, and a painted sign on a wall in the narrow alley that leads to the apartment advertises rooms-for-rent by the day. The hotel, if there ever was one, is long gone.
On a folding picnic table, Devorn Samuel helps separate the food, delivered by ARK, into 25 portions to share among a large group of Nicaraguans left stranded in Cayman without work after an evacuation flight was cancelled.
Most of the men worked in water sports, tourism or construction and have been without pay for two months.
After the flight was cancelled in April, they were each given a $150 grocery voucher by government, says Jiminez. They pooled their resources together and tried to make it stretch, buying rice and eggs and other budget foods in bulk. But more than a month has passed now and the supplies have run out.
They depend on the regular deliveries from ARK to eat each day and on the generosity of their landlord to have a roof over their heads.
While they are grateful for the help they get, the men say they wish they could provide some work in return.
“It is really embarrassing, we appreciate the hospitality that everyone is doing, but we don’t know when the door will close on us,” said Samuel, who worked for Red Sail Sports prior to the closure of Cayman’s borders.
“One day we will think that someone is bringing something for us and no one is there.”
Ideally, he said, he will return to Nicaragua as soon as a flight is sanctioned. He believes the Nicaraguan government will allow its citizens to return if they can get a negative COVID-19 test.
Jimenez is also desperate to return home. He has four children in Nicaragua and no way to send them money.
“My biggest daughter calls me, ‘Dad, I need this, I need that’, and I say ‘Baby, you not hear about this pandemic? I not working, I can’t send money’. I feel so bad. She says ‘my mummy not working either so how can I survive?’ It makes your heart break.”
No time for bureaucracy
It is stories like these that keep Kelly Rooney awake at night and get her out of bed in the morning.
What we have seen, she says, is just a small fraction of the families and communities of all races and nationalities that are suffering the impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Tomorrow, it will be a different route, hundreds of different families with hundreds of different stories.
Some are people ARK was already helping – single mums like Seantel Jackson, who drove from Bodden Town to pick up some food for herself and her two young children. For her, a tough situation has become even tougher in the past months.
Others are leaning on the charitable sector for the first time in their lives
Kelly handles the phones and sorts out the delivery rota for the food programme. She has a driver on standby for emergencies.
“We have had people call who only just found out about us and sometimes they haven’t eaten in days,” she says.
When people are starving, she says, there is no time for bureaucracy.
“When you have a mother call you saying, ‘Me and my baby are hungry, can you feed us?’ Yeah, you bet I am gonna feed them as fast as I can, even if it is the end of the day and I run to the supermarket for them myself.”
Government support needed
While some expat workers have left the island and the construction sector is beginning to go back to work, many in the tourism industry have burnt through the last of their savings and are only now coming for help, says Neil Rooney.
ARK, which is just one of several charities providing food support to those without income, believes the problem will get worse before it gets better.
He says he is surprised that more is not being done by government to directly help those in need. He accepts the Needs Assessment Unit is providing increased support but, for many, this is often not enough and, in multiple cases, the applications for help are not dealt with swiftly. In the interim, people go hungry.
For guest workers there is less support. A$150 food voucher is available on application to the Ministry of Community Affairs.
“The humanitarian side of this thing is being missed by government,” Rooney said.
“Organisations like ours are prepared to work as hard as we can. Our system is in place, we know exactly where the need is and we can make it work, but there is going to be a point where we run out of money and that need is still going up.
“I don’t even want to imagine what happens when those two things happen at the same time.”
For more information on Ark’s Feed Cayman program, to donate or find out how you can help visit their website here.
- Additional reporting and all videography by Andrel Harris