Circle of Kindness

Anna Elverson gives back.
Anna Elverson gives back.

Even the smallest act of kindness can have the effect of sprinkling stardust on someone else’s life.

From simply saying thank you, to helping those in urgent need of assistance, the spectrum of kindness allows everybody to practice the art of altruism.

A tiny gesture of consideration or compassion can light up another person’s day or even change the course of their life.

Tara Nielsen (center) with Treasan Myles, Kelana Cousins and Cayman Casa volunteers.
Tara Nielsen (center) with Treasan Myles, Kelana Cousins and Cayman Casa volunteers.

In the Cayman Islands, there is a special word for this brand of benevolence: Caymankind. The phrase embodies the warmth and generosity of spirit for which Caymanians are known, reflecting their love for neighbor and their willingness to share with one another.

It has long been this way, emanating from the days of hardship when the men went to sea to earn a living and the women remained at home to farm the land and nurture not just their families but also the soul of the community. In those times, there was little in the way of home-comforts and commodities, but the people were rich in kindness, looking after one another.

Heather and Gunner Ketterer, ARK fundraiser.
Heather and Gunner Ketterer, ARK fundraiser.

As the “Cayman miracle” unfolded and the islands were propelled from relative poverty to unprecedented prosperity, this inherent sense of kindness did not diminish. In fact, it rose to a pinnacle after the catastrophe of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 in which the greater part of Grand Cayman was all but flattened.

The near-total destruction of many homes and offices was a sudden leveler for society, in which, amongst the chaos and confusion, the majority of people put kindness above all else. Families and friends came together to help rebuild their lives. They also helped strangers, oftentimes forging long-lasting bonds with people they may never have met under normal circumstances.

As a result, not only did the storm spark a surge of humanity and good will amongst the populace, but the consequent acts of kindness strengthened people’s spirit to such an extent that the island emerged stronger and more successful that ever before.

This same experience of selflessness and overall decency was replicated in Cayman Brac after the devasting effects of Hurricane Paloma in 2008.

Although extreme circumstances shine the spotlight on the better side of human nature, day-to-day acts of kindness which go largely unnoticed are equally as important. These can have a profound impact on both the recipient and the person extending the kind gesture.

Tara Nielsen, who has devoted more than a decade to putting these principles into practice in the Cayman Islands, calls it the “circle of kindness.”

“Kindness encompasses goodness, mercy, love, grace, favor, gentleness, tenderness and compassion,” she says. “Kindness is contagious and, once kindness, compassion and genuine concern for others is experienced in word and action, the recipient feels compelled to ‘pay it forward’ and the circle of kindness never ends.

“The experience of kindness, especially from a stranger, nurtures hope, love and gratitude. These are awesome emotions that cannot be contained; they have to be shared.”

ARK

Art for ARK.
Art for ARK.

In 2006, Tara and her close friend Houria Fresard founded the non-profit organization Acts of Random Kindness (ARK), which is based on this very precept.

The charity runs several programs improving the standards of living in the homes of the under-privileged, ensuring that nobody goes hungry or homeless, as well as encouraging and providing education. ARK also helps children and adults in life-threatening medical situations and addresses any matter of crisis or suffering through collective community support.

“The foundation of ARK is ‘loving kindness,’” says Tara. “It begins with ‘relationship’ and we start with this simple gesture. Friendship grows from trust, trusts invites honesty, and it’s from there that we can then know truly, how we can help.”

ARK’s structure has been kept deliberately small to avoid the delays of red tape.

“We need to be in the situation to react immediately if somebody needs help right away,” Tara explains. “You can’t do that if you are required to have a board meeting before making any decisions.”

To this end, she and Houria are assisted by an external accountant and a willing group of volunteers. The organization’s youth outreach program ARK Angels is also on hand to help, with young people mostly aged between 12 and 18, although they’ve had members as young as 6-years-old.

There is even a waiting list of companies which want to pitch in with manpower as part of their socially responsible approach to operating as a business.

“We are grateful to have their employees help us, right up to the CEOs,” says Tara.

Most of the appeals and programs are publicized through the ARK Facebook page and by word of mouth.

Volunteers at George Town house.
Volunteers at George Town house.

Cayman Casa

One recent initiative which has been a huge collaboration between people from all walks of life is the renovation of a house in George Town where a 5-year-old child and her mother were living in squalor.

George Town house being rebuilt.
George Town house being rebuilt.

The project falls under ARK’s Cayman Casa program to upgrade substandard homes to a safe, healthy and acceptable standard, which, says Tara, is all too common a situation in Cayman that many people do not know exists.

“There was sewage surrounding the house and it was impossible to avoid,” says Tara. “Their bed was balanced on blocks. The smell was horrific. There was no bathroom. Kelana, the little girl, had never had a bathroom.”

ARK launched a campaign for assistance, with people and companies responding to rebuild the property.

“The mother had been consumed with despair,” says Tara. “Yet, today, she is a new woman, an employed and engaged parent, with hope and a future. Now what she wants to do the most is ‘pay it forward.’”

Cayman Face Painters, painting for a cause.
Cayman Face Painters, painting for a cause.

Helping students

Another ARK program which is expanding quickly is known as MER, which is the abbreviation for “Mentor, Educate, Reinforce.” This initiative is aimed at pupils from impoverished homes who require additional academic assistance.

“This is invaluable to students who cannot read or have completely missed the foundations of reading as a result of a difficult home-life, or living conditions, but are totally capable given the chance,” explains Tara.

Some ways to be kindAll those involved with ARK’s efforts during the past decade are extremely moved by the results of assisting so many children and adults.

“We have experienced great joy in being able to help dozens of children who have been in desperate need of emergency surgeries,” she says. “This ranges from children with heart problems, cancer, cleft palate, seizure disorders, hearing problems, limb deformities, special needs, hunger, homelessness and physical abuse, to name a few.”

And it is people with just about every imaginable skill-set in the Cayman Islands who contribute to ARK’s random acts of kindness.

“We’ve had magicians perform, bands get together, hairdressers style for donations, runners run, swimmers swim, cyclists cycle, and the amazing Crossfit experts be boots-on-the-ground in home clean-ups,” Tara recounts. “We also have carpenters, plumbers, tilers, dry-wall experts, roofers, electricians, nurses, doctors and pharmacists. From local businesses to big law firms and banks – you name it – these are the heroes that make all these acts of kindness happen.”

Tara urges everyone to adopt the concept of “pay it forward,” perpetuating a kindness by extending a kind gesture to someone else.

“Try and be a blessing wherever you are,” she says. “Let those whom you encounter leave their time with you at the very least feeling better, or that they have experienced kindness, or that they have a friend.”

Rhea Whorms (left) and Olivia Hayman “color for kindness.”
Rhea Whorms (left) and Olivia Hayman “color for kindness.”