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‘Most would not believe the poverty in Cayman’

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Before and after: a dilapidated shower transformed by charity Cayman’s Ark (Photographs supplied)

Despite the Cayman Islands’ booming economy, poverty remains a substantial problem.The Government’s Needs Assessment Unit gave financial support to 2,059 families in 2018, including rent money for 543 families and paying electric and water bills for 570.Tara Nielsen sees the harsh reality behind the statistics. Since founding charity Caymans Ark (Acts of Random Kindness) in 2006, Ms Nielsen, who moved to Cayman 21 years ago from Britain, has seen the lives of those left behind by the ongoing economic boom.“Most people would not believe the poverty that exists in the Cayman Islands,” Ms Nielsen said. Ark helps the poor in several ways. It aids those living in dire conditions, funding the renovations necessary to bring their homes up to a habitable standard under the Casa programme. Its Reconnect Cayman programme helps families who have been disconnected from their electricity or water supplies, helping them to pay off utility bill arrears, especially in cases where children are involved.Its Mentor-Educate-Reinforce programme helps struggling students from underprivileged families through intensive academic intervention.Ms Nielsen estimates the number of families in poor housing is “in the high hundreds” and said the problem emanates from Hurricane Ivan, the Category 5 storm that devastated Cayman in 2004.“As a result of Ivan, we have many people living in dire conditions, because they were not in a position to repair their homes,” Ms Nielsen said. “After the storm, many families were given a stipend of about CI$10,000 (US$12,000) but in many cases that didn’t scratch the surface of the repairs that were necessary. Some ended up living off the money.“I see walls covered in black mould, homes without electricity or running water and homes where they have to put buckets on their beds every time it rains to catch the water.”It’s difficult for Ark to make a serious impression on the problem, Ms Nielsen said, because the resources needed are so great and the projects taken on by the charity, one at a time, can each take months to complete. Many of the volunteers who help clean up the homes are expatriate workers, Ms Nielsen said, something that creates goodwill towards foreigners among the Caymanians in those neighbourhoods.Ark helps the poor to navigate the NAU, the government welfare system. Those who get approved for government housing support then have to find a landlord of an affordable property who will accept them as tenants — not easy, Ms Nielsen said. And then they have to reapply for aid three months later.“I would prefer to see a government system that’s more empathetic, “ Ms Nielsen said.Ark’s funding comes from companies, local and international, and supportive individuals. She does not work with the Government. Her fundraising efforts are mainly through Cayman Ark’s Facebook page and letters to prospective donors.“I post pictures on Facebook and ask for help,” Ms Nielsen said. “The corporations and businesses are incredible, they’re really stepping up. The last house, I launched the picture and in three minutes CI$7,000 had been pledged. And there are a lot of regular Joes, who donate $25 and $50 here and there.”Strong economic growth has fuelled inflation, widening the inequality gap between the large number of wealthy and well-off people in Cayman and the marginalised poor, she added.Children of struggling families were turning up for school unfed, unbathed and not in a state of mind for learning, she said. That’s why Ark’s MER programme tries to target such children, take them aside and use a private tutor to assist with their educational development. In its first year, the programme is seeing encouraging results, working with 12 children and funded by donors including the Dart group and law firm Walkers. Next year, Ms Nielsen hopes to expand it. She added that the public school system was failing children, some of whom came out of school not equipped “even to do a cashier’s job”, she said.Cayman’s Office of Education Standards annual report for 2019 found that only six schools out of 25 were found to be performing at the expected level of “good”, or better. Five of the six were private schools.• Cayman’s Ark has a website, www.caymansark.com, and also a Facebook page

Fighting poverty: Tara Nielsen of Cayman’s Ark