Small acts of random kindness can be as valuable as building someone a house.

—Tara Nielsen

These heartfelt words echo throughout our conversation with Tara Nielsen, Founder and Director of Cayman’s Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) foundation. Over the past 16 years, Tara has devoted her life on-Island to others in unique circumstances of crisis and, along with countless volunteers, continues to demonstrate kindness through loving acts of service. Her impressive humanitarian efforts are matched by her devotion and love of raising three spirited boys, whose lives have also been influenced by ARK’s work.

Sitting down with coffee and cakes, Cayman Parent had the pleasure and privilege to discover more about Tara’s family history in Cayman, raising a family on-Island and, of course, ARK’s powerful work across the Cayman Islands throughout the years. The conversation was warm, inspiring, and above all, earnest, as Tara passionately discussed the trials and triumphs of ARK and motherhood. Fond memories, on-going adventures and hopeful futures were shared by all as Tara, Tom, Theo and Jaspar considered kinship, their ancestral ties to Cayman and the ripple effect of kindness.

Family History in Cayman

Though born in England, Cayman has always been a constant in Tara’s life. In 1968, her father Mark Fisher and grandfather Sir Anthony Fisher travelled to Grand Cayman, and with fellow shareholders established Mariculture Ltd. Now known as the Cayman Turtle Centre, Mariculture was the beginning of a huge conservation enterprise. The plan was to breed and raise Green Sea Turtles and create a scalable business with worldwide potential. As a company, they made substantial efforts to demonstrate that farming a migratory reptile could save it from the depredations on the nesting beaches, whilst also providing a new and sustainable supply of very nutritious meat. Eating sea turtles had been customary across Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands for centuries, however, regulations intended to protect the Green Sea Turtle were later introduced and prevented the sale of turtle produce, including the sustainable meat from Mariculture. During the Mariculture days, Tara’s parents had four children who travelled back and forth between England and Cayman. When the Turtle Farm closed, the family returned to England.

Back in England, Tara’s mother, Rosie Fisher, owned and worked in an antiques store in Uckfield, East Sussex called Dragons. Initially, Dragons specialised in antiques until Rosie became frustrated when she couldn’t find any furnishings for her children’s nurseries. She began to import tiny rush chairs which she found by chance whilst on holiday in Spain. Being the creative and driven woman she was, Rosie branched into hand-painted toy boxes, tables and chairs which sold like hotcakes! Now with a growing business, Dragons moved to a more central location in Chelsea, London. Eventually, the business secured the Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh and Paddington Bear copyrights, among others, and Tara’s mother began designing fabrics and furniture herself, which was all manufactured and hand painted in England. Rosie lovingly named these designs after her children and grandchildren – there’s still a ‘Tara’s Table’ to this day! Sadly, Tara’s mum died around 16 years ago, but she’s remembered fondly by her daughter as being incredibly talented and extraordinary.

“My dad is my total hero”, Tara replies when asked who her role model is, “he taught me to be kind, to be interested in others, to listen to them, to learn from them and to be genuine and authentic in behaviour, thought and mind.” Listening to Tara, and seeing ARK thrive in the way it has, it’s clear that her father’s lessons have remained at the forefront of her mission with the charity and in parenthood.

Childhood in England

As a child, Tara was lucky enough to have an idyllic countryside life on a farm in Sussex in the Southeast of England, surrounded by animals, woodland and lakes. Being the youngest of four siblings, Tara was never short of company but found joy in the farmyard animals around her. “My parents converted an old pigsty into a little Wendy house for me”, Tara recalls, “I slept there in the summer months surrounded by geese, ducks, horses, dogs and cats. It was truly my happy place.”

At the tender age of six, Tara was sent to boarding school, attending St. Andrews in Eastbourne and later, Farlington School in Sussex. Upon discussing her time at school, Tara admits, “I was the most terrible student. I was quite naughty, probably because I couldn’t do the work.” Tara found school very challenging and struggled with a lot of the work, particularly in Maths. Because of her struggles, Tara couldn’t wait to finish school and at the age of 16 she left education.

Changing Trajectories

Growing up on a farm and having a love of animals from a young age, Tara dreamed of becoming a vet. However, due to the challenges she faced in education, that dream perished. Instead, Tara took part in Prince Philip’s Duke of Edinburgh award programme which transformed her life and put her on the path she still walks to this day. As part of the scheme, Tara visited a hospital in Hove, Sussex to work with children who suffered from the neurological disease, Rett Syndrome. The time she spent at the hospital was unlike anything Tara had previously experienced, describing it as an earth-shattering moment for her. “It changed the trajectory of my life because I felt something I’d never felt before”, Tara explains, “I wanted to help people. I wanted to love and nurture people. And that’s what set me off on my path of working with people, families and children.”

It was this profound experience working with children, together with her own challenging time in education that helped propel one of ARK’s schemes here in Grand Cayman: The MER programme. MER is an education initiative that provides intensive learning remediation at a key stage in the lives of underprivileged children with learning difficulties. Through M-entorship, E-ducation and R-einforcement in the family home, MER aspires to reverse the tragic cycle of poverty by changing the trajectory of life for at-risk children through education. Tara emphasises how her own experiences in education helped drive the MER programme. “I wasn’t given that time”, Tara goes on, “it’s funny isn’t it, the ripple effect of your own experiences.”

The Next Generation

Though Tara has done incredible work across Grand Cayman over the past 16 years in setting up and running ARK, it’s clear that her three sons are her crowning glory. Tom, Theo and Jaspar, now aged 24, 23 and 16, respectively, all grew up in Cayman and vividly recall hours spent on their boat, jet skiing in the North Sound, diving in the Caribbean Sea and lounging on Seven Mile. Much like Tara herself, their upbringing was idyllic, and best summed up by Tom who says it was like “something you would see in a movie.” Taking after their mother, each of Tara’s sons have forged their own path, both on-Island and overseas.

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Together, eldest brother Tom and his mum tell the story of how Tom tore out an article for Military School, repeatedly put it on his mum’s desk and proceeded to persistently beg his mum if he could attend. Though she admitted to kicking and screaming, Tara eventually gave in to Tom who attended Riverside Military Academy in Georgia, USA. Since then, Tom has journeyed between Cayman and the States going first to boarding school in Upstate New York, and now studying Politics, Philosophy and the History of Globalisation at Hofstra University in Long Island, NY. Middle son, Theo, graduated as a Commercial Diver from the Divers Institute of Technology based out of Seattle. He hopes to bring back his trade to Cayman and open a business on-Island. And youngest son, Jaspar, is currently studying online at Williamsburg Academy. He is a passionate and accomplished sailor, being named National Optimist Champion in Cayman for two years, representing Cayman in the World Championships of sailing in Antigua and taking second place in the British Nationals! He was headed to his second World Championships in Italy to represent Cayman when the pandemic hit and his hopes were dashed. Described by his brothers as outdoorsy and great at physical labour, Jaspar doesn’t have a great interest in going to university, but instead has his sights set on working in automotive and marine mechanics and hopes to open a local business.

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Tom, Theo and Jaspar all see themselves as great friends. Of course, like so many other brothers, they each exhibited their fair share of devilish behaviour. Oldest brother Tom confesses how at Christmastime, not only would his younger brothers wait for him to open his presents first, Theo would also give Tom his own presents to open! “No matter how awful I could be”, Tom says, “he would always still love me as my brother.” All three boys also share an affection, respect and gratitude for Tara. When describing his mum, Theo affectionately tells us: “I didn’t realise how lucky I was when I was young but it’s obvious to me now that I’m older. My mother is extraordinary, not only is she a mother of three boys, but she has worked so very hard with ARK and has helped change so many lives.” And this gratitude is shared among the boys with both Tom and Jaspar confessing how their mum has always listened to and supported their choices in life. The personal successes of Tom, Theo and Jaspar are a testament to their upbringing.

Parenting in Cayman

As a mother, both Tara and her sons agree it was a hands-off approach. Their wild childhood involved “lots of scrapes, bruises, trouble and adventures.” Tara attests this was down to her experience at boarding school where there were many rules and such a lack of freedom. “I figured, let them climb that tree. If they fall, they won’t do it again.” Being the fourth and youngest child of two busy working parents, Tara didn’t feel heard like her siblings were, yet she believes this is what has made her a good listener. “I always said to myself when I was a little girl that I would listen to my children”, Tara explains, “so I've really tried to listen to my kids and that's why they've had these interesting paths.”

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Growing up, Tom, Theo and Jaspar were all involved in ARK with their mum. Tara reveals that she “wanted them to see how it's not all West Bay Road in Cayman”, and in the absence of childcare, she would often bring her sons along from the very beginning. As a family they would all lend a helping hand: Christmas Eve was often spent delivering gift packages to those in need; the boys have helped with mentoring for the MER programme; and most recently they all helped with the COVID-19 food runs, feeding hundreds of people across the Island during the pandemic. “They've definitely been dragged around a bit”, says Tara, “but they've always been willing participants.” All three boys attest that both ARK and their mum have inspired their journeys through life and shaped their outlooks. They each speak passionately about their mum's work, recalling intimate details, family names and friends they have each made throughout the years.

Acts of Random Kindness - The Beginning

ARK, Acts of Random Kindness, was founded in 2006 by Tara. It was Tara’s experiences during her Duke of Edinburgh award scheme together with her deep faith that motivated her to pursue a role helping the sick, the struggling and the disadvantaged. After having her first two children, though bringing her great joy, Tara was disappointed that she would be unable to travel across the world to help others in more poverty-stricken places than Cayman. However, Tara believes that God guided her to 'grow where she was planted' and attests that charity begins at home. She was deeply inspired by Christ’s love and his lessons to love one another.

Because of this, she organised a monthly meet up with friends where the group spoke about an individual case that was close to their own heart, and those around the table would give a donation which would then be directly given to the individual discussed. By the end of one of the first meetings there was $3,000 in the old straw hat on the table. Tara couldn’t believe it, and attests that this charitable venture was a success because it centred on a tangible issue – a real story made up of real people with real problems – and ARK was born out of this same principle. Both Tara and ARK continue to be guided by faith. “We are all brothers and sisters in Christ”, says Tara, “my approach to ARK’s children and families is the same as my approach my biological family. Spiritually, we are all connected.”

Tara is lucky enough to have lived a pretty idyllic life in many ways, and because of this, she’s also been able to bring up her boys in a similar kind of paradise. But like many others, she has also faced her own battles and suffered periods of hardship. And it’s these harder times that have taught her so much about the impact of kindness. During these chapters of adversity, Tara found solace in the acts of kindness she received from strangers, and the ripple effect of these acts is what greatly influenced ARK’s birth. Passionately, Tara tells us how faith is the foundation of both the charity and her own life. ARK was Tara’s way of making acts of community service a discipline in her life and wanted to encourage others to do the same. “I wanted to share God’s love, compassion and kindness with people who were struggling and who needed a helping hand.”

Helping Those Without a Voice

When discussing ARK’s work over the past 16 years, we wondered what it was that kept Tara motivated in the face of such challenging circumstances when the deprivation seems so endless. “When I think “I just have to stop”, I meet a new person who has a plight and is alone and doesn't have a voice. ARK is that voice for those who nobody can hear when crying for help,” Tara earnestly replies. One recurring reflection throughout our meeting with Tara was her emphasis on those who make ARK’s amazing work possible. “It’s the $5 person and the $2 person who are changing lives… It isn’t ARK, it’s the community. It’s this beautiful, amazing community… It’s the people.” Tara goes on, explaining how ARK was able to deliver 8,000 meals a week for four months during the 2020 lockdown on community and corporate donations alone. What’s more, since the pandemic began, the community has supported ARK and raised a tremendous amount of money to help those in need. This generosity and hard work is what has kept ARK afloat for 16 years, making the charity a National Treasure.

Yet, every donation is precious, especially now in the aftermath of the pandemic and due to the exponential rise in the cost of living. As many families continue to face hardship and suffering, ARK needs the support of Cayman’s people to continue this life-changing work. Tara’s dream for the charity is that it will have a long-term, generational impact on lives in Cayman. The extreme challenges that many families are currently facing make it virtually impossible for some children to receive a proper education. Little ones are being exposed to sickness and disease due to unsafe housing. They are unable to wash each night with no running water. They cannot even eat for lack of money to buy food. And children who are trapped in this cycle of poverty go on to have their own children who face all the same challenges. Hence all of ARK’s programmes aim to tackle these issues, free young ones from this entrapment and break this cycle.

ARK's Programmes

The MER Programme

This is what makes the MER programme the cornerstone of the charity. Tara makes it clear that, “we don’t want to be paying for food and utilities forever. We need a long-term solution.” For

Tara, this solution stems from education. When a child is selected for the MER programme, the team go into the home of the child, meet with their family and see what’s going on at home. “Because when we can get a child’s mother into a better place, she can then be a better parent”, Tara explains. “If her house is falling apart, we can improve the house. We can improve her spirit, her sense of self, her motivation and her mental health… the MER programme wraps its service around the parent, the child, the house and the academic intervention. It focuses on kids with learning difficulties who are completely left, and just lost.” It is unique because it is holistic.

The CASA Home Improvement, Re-Connect Cayman & Feed Cayman Programmes

Kitchen before

As well as the MER programme, ARK have several other schemes which aim to help those who have found themselves in dire straits. Many homes across the Island are still suffering storm damage – including storms even prior to Ivan! The CASA Home Improvement programme aims to raise the standard of living island-wide, renovating dilapidated housing and harrowing living conditions because of economic hardship. As part of the home improvement programme, the Re-connect Cayman scheme provides interim aid for those struggling to pay for utilities, water, and housing, whilst the Feed Cayman programme addresses the issue of hunger. Much like the MER programme, these schemes aim to get families back on their feet to better a child’s life.

Tiny Homes

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As part of the CASA programme, ARK have recently embarked on a mission of replacing condemned housing, where adults and children live in unsafe and deplorable conditions, with new 'Tiny Homes'. Even though ARK has driven down the cost of these houses, they still require up to $100,000 (per house) in labour and materials. Though this total may seem like a daunting figure, their 'buy a brick' scheme simplifies the cost and helps you to see where your donation is going. You can buy one brick, or hundreds!

Caymanians in Need

ARK estimates that, through the generosity of the local community, they have been able to assist several thousand people and their dependants in the last two years alone. However, there remains many hundreds of people in permanent need of assistance with housing, education and medical support. And this work continues in parallel to their long-term housing and education programmes. There are numerous young children in each district who are waiting to be enrolled in the MER programme alone. ARK needs funding for these children. This can change their lives and those of generations to come. Tara passionately argues, “if we can support and educate Caymanians – the country’s future – they will make Cayman a better place.”

Our conversation with Tara and her three boys celebrated brotherhood, motherhood and the gift of kindness. As a family, one thing they all share is their genuine love and respect of one another, and their familial affection, team spirit and love has nourished ARK from its birth. Since before Tara was born, her family has nurtured a relationship with the Cayman Islands and its people, and Tara’s hope is that this relationship will continue to blossom through ARK’s legacy. In talking to Tara, she reminded us that we all need to take care of one another, and that “small acts of random kindness can be as valuable as building someone a house.”

How You Can Help

If you're able to donate to the efforts to feed and shelter children, families and vulnerable people, keep them healthy and connected to utilities, and support the education of little ones through the MER programme, ARK would be sincerely and humbly grateful.

Article Credits

Photography: Rebecca Davidson