Caterpillar Promise

October 10, 2022 — 2 Comments

Nine years ago on October 8th, 2013, a dynamo in a petite frame named Resa O’Reilly signed ownership papers for a derelict building in Christiansted, the main town on St Croix. It became the foundation of a dream, a promise she made to herself, of instigating an holistic, long-term, after-school program for children and so, a few months later, the non-profit Project Promise became incorporated. A program dedicated to giving “at-risk youth the tools and support they need to live healthier lives.” To help youngsters improve their decision-making skills, to manage conflict, to introduce new vocational interests with the ultimate goal of inspiring “excellence and success for youth throughout the Virgin Islands community.”

Then

From those lofty goals and dreams came the Caterpillar Project, an eight-year program that would nurture at-risk children. The criteria for acceptance included students chosen from the 5th Grade with C or D averages, minimal to no behavioral issues and with involved parents. That last condition being pivotal because for the children to thrive, the message given in the program environment must be reinforced in the home.

That first tranche all taken from the Lew Muckle Elementary School have graduated and the second has started. This time students drawn from across different schools, which will create a different dynamic both for the children and those involved in the programming.

Not only are the students given opportunities to learn different life skills, and to learn about their own environment, they are encouraged to expand their outlook both nationally and globally. One program took four of the Caterpillars on a Summer of Service 4,000 mile coast-to-coast trip across mainland America. These youngsters saw iconic landmarks from each state they crossed but they also gave back to some of the communities through which they passed – service being an important component of the program. Another program involved Toys for Tanzania, and Walk for Refugees Awareness. As Ms O’Reilly states, “It’s important for the Caterpillars to know, despite their challenges, they can still make a difference in the lives of others.”

Project Promise initially run out the same school from which the children were drawn then, after the destruction of Hurricane Maria five years ago, from space given by Island Therapy Solutions, will now be housed in the building that prompted that initial dream.

“When I first went into the building,” Resa told me, “it was knee-high in trash, mattresses everywhere. The roof needed replacing, the windows, everything. ”

Now

Through the unstinting efforts of Resa O’Reilly, supported by her family and the board of Project Promise, the building began to take shape. Many local entities have been involved in helping this project come to fruition from major financial contributions, to smaller amounts and practical help. The Humanitarian Experience for Youth, for example, sent 146 volunteers to St Croix over a seven-week period in 2021. Teenage girls and boys became, in the space of a few weeks, adept at wearing a hard hat and wielding a hammer, climbing ladders, installing windows.

Now, nine long years later, the building under the guidance of local architect, William Taylor, is proof that dreams can come true. The rooms are light and airy, painted in varying shades of grey and white. Modern white desks line two of the classrooms – one which will be used to enhance computer skills. The conference / multi-purpose room is equally as spare in its decor but there is a warmth to the entire space generated by the enthusiasm that bubbles from all concerned. The kitchen and bathrooms are streamlined – floating shelves adding a sense of freedom. An enclosed courtyard, lined with just-planted crotons, ferns and small palms will become an outdoor space for snacks and games. Upstairs comfortable sofas and chairs dot the open-plan recreational room that leads to a small balcony.

The Project Promise building has, over the years, had numerous functions – a tavern, a cobbler’s shop, a mason, a wig shop and now a community centre for the young. In a story that has had various twists along the road, Resa has one more to add to the canon. The day before the Caterpillar Project started she found out that Lew Muckle, the Virgin Island native son and senator for whom the elementary school had been named and from which her Caterpillars had been chosen, had once worked in the building on the corner of Queen and King Cross Streets.

Through her determination and belief that obstacles are actually hidden opportunities, the once derelict building opened officially on Saturday, October 8th, 2022, nine years to the day since Resa O’Reilly found her life’s purpose.

As we watched attendees being guided through the building by one of the Caterpillars I asked her, “So, Resa, what’s next?”

“Oh my gosh,” the woman in an elegant crimson dress replied, “we’ve got to keep raising funds. It’s hard to keep the impetus going in the publics mind. There’s a sort of attitude amongst some that ‘well you’ve got the building what more do you want?’

“So the fundraiser treadmill continues?”

“Always,” she replied. “We can’t offer programs for these children without having financial backing.”

I am amazed at Resa’s resilience, her limitless enthusiasm, her dedication to the belief that an holistic approach is the most advantageous way to guide children to become strong, community-minded young people.

But it takes not just time but funds. Please consider donating to the future of St Croix.
http://www.projectpromisevi.com/donate

The Harmony of Life

October 3, 2022 — 7 Comments

“Mum, no more churches.” My son’s words came back to me yesterday as I waited for Jazz Vespers to start in a church perched atop a hill, open to the trade winds – when there are any. It is the St Croix Reformed Church and, because of COVID, the monthly event has not taken place for a couple of years.
I am not a regular church goer but I love churches.

When living in Scotland and after long, dark and dank winters I craved sunshine, so Italy became our chosen summer escape. And, apart from mouth-watering food and the nectar of the gods, the architecture of Italian churches, not to mention the statuary and art work, is sublime. An education in itself. But there is a limit to how many times an eight-year-old can be hauled around churches in every town or village passed through. And for his mother. The glory, the candles and rites can become overwhelming.

That same child, let’s call him Edward, went to a nursery school in Singapore affiliated with St George’s Church, originally built for the British garrison in the 1860s. The current church, completed in 1910, has the ability to transform from day to night. By day bulbuls and golden orioles flit amongst hibiscus planted outside, or swoop in to sit upon the gables of the pitched roof. The sturdy brick, barn-like structure is open to the elements on both sides of the nave, which leads to a modest altar below three stained-glass windows. By night the jungle chorale of crickets and frogs join the congregation in song, and the church becomes a beacon in the dark.

It is the simplicity I have always loved. There is no pretension.

Going back even further in my memory is the chapel at my boarding school, NEGS, in Armidale, Australia. The Florence Green Memorial Chapel, named for the founder of the school, is also a simple design – cruciform – and built of Armidale ‘blue’ brick. One transept houses the organ and choir, the other, junior members of the school under the stern eye of the incumbent headmistress.
Despite despising the regulatory uniform of ‘sacks’ (the name given our white Sunday best) and stockings, even at the tender age of ten I could appreciate the calm beauty of the silky oak interior and pews. At morning services the sun would stream through the transept stained-glass window to cast a blue haze over girls in the front pews.

The chaplain I remember best was the Reverend Alan Gordon – a man intent on engaging a chapel full of reluctant girls by any means possible. It was he who implemented a student folk group – a Kumbaya-kind of service conducted by senior students as we sang songs like Blowing in the Wind or, even more radical for rural Australia, House of the Rising Sun, accompanied by guitars.

Majesty without pretension.

Last night, in the church on the hill the sound of Eddie Russell and his jazz musicians brought back memories of other churches that sang to me. So too the realization that it is not the scriptures but the spirituality of the building and the music that speaks to me.

Eddie, invariably wearing black, is a well-known musician on St Croix and is the band leader. He plays a mean keyboard and flugelhorn, and keeps tight control of the group even if sometimes there is confusion as to what is to be played next. I closed my eyes during his solo of Simba Negro, taken to Argentina on the notes from a flugelhorn.

Ronnie, his brother and one-time lawyer and senator, loses himself as he rocks to the sounds coming from his agile fingers running up and down the frets of his red guitar. The bass guitarist, Mario Thomas strums the rhythm whilst sitting on an amp – his chords reach the depth of my soul as he plays a solo in Chromosome. He’s a cool dude whose face every now and then breaks into a broad grin. The quartet is complete when Ken ‘Afra’ Dailey settles behind the drums, testing different sticks before hitting the cymbals and controlling the beat that send talismans swaying around his neck. He is a hat-maker by trade and last night he wore a kind of paperboy cap on top of his long greying dreads.

I thought of Edward, of churches around the world, as the jazz soul of the Caribbean, accompanied by cricket song, enveloped me in a church filled, not just with the devout, but with people like me, open to the architecture, to the music, to the harmony of life.

Stan’s Anniversary Story

September 14, 2022 — 2 Comments

A year ago whilst grumbling my way around Altoona Lagoon I spotted two dogs. It is a favored spot to dump unwanted animals. This particular day was particularly heartbreaking as one of the dogs – the un-neutered black one – was bleeding from suppurating mange. His companion, a healthy looking, honey-colored, neutered dog came straight to me, I’m sure tempted by the dog treats I always carry. The black one, whilst not emaciated was very thin but would not take even a tossed treat.

I continued on my way then, realizing I was playing Pied Piper to two dogs, I called John to ask him to open the back gate. Skeptical he doubted they would stay the course. Meantime he stole cat food from Bonnie and put it in bowls in the garden. We held up traffic, climbed the hill and walked in with the black one bringing up the rear. A long way back.

We took Honey, thin and friendly, to the Animal Shelter where they found he had been chipped. They promised to investigate and we left him there.
Stan told another story, and he became the focus of our lives. So great was his terror that we couldn’t get near him. Progressive Vets came through and, from only photos, sent me home with medication to at least start the physical healing process. He ate everything we put his way including tablets smothered in cream cheese, but we could not touch him.

His terror was heartrending. We took the door off a large kennel and put it in the garden to at least give him some shelter. Then, one afternoon, a car backfired close enough to send him into flight mode. We walked the streets as we thought he’d forced his way through thick undergrowth at the top of the garden and run into town. Finally our neighbor found him cringing behind a large pot on one of their terraces. In his panic he jumped down an eight foot wall but, remarkably, had not broken any bones.

Stan, trembling and peeing, allowed John to pick him up. Even in his terror he never snapped, never made a sound. We put him in the truck and took him straight to Progressive. Again they came through. Apart from the dreadful mange, Stan appeared healthy. No heart worm, and after a medicated bath, we came home.

Each week we trapped him for his bath, but any attempt at petting was met with flight. Then after six weeks of lying on the floor, classical music playing to relax him, and us, with treats in our hands, he began inch by inch to trust us.

Who knows what his life was like before? Sudden loud noises can still scare him, but not thunder. He is battle-scarred. So am I now. A fractured ankle and torn shoulder ligaments resulted from one morning walk when he hauled me over, not the coals, but the asphalt. He’s had a rough time too with ACL surgery, and has an anatomical weakness in his back legs which results in the occasional collapse. With diet, medication and exercise we hope he will live with us a long time. Bonnie has accepted him into the household now that recognizes his species is far below that of a feline.

Today, a year later, Stan is a much-loved lab-mix, teenage puppy of about two, who thinks he is a lap dog. He likes nothing better than to lie on his back and have his tummy rubbed. He loves ice and cream cheese – actually any sort of cheese. He has been known to chew things – all my verandah furniture! Guests know not to remove their shoes or face the risk of a barefoot walk home. Stan is friendly, loving, smart, and thought nothing of distracting the photographer during my photo-shoot.

Happy anniversary, Stan, you are loved!

What a week!

It started on a high with the publication of my latest book – Have You Eaten Rice Today? on September 6th. The launch came and went with laughter and champagne, a reading and the start of reviews trickling in.

Then September 8th brought the mind-numbing news that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II had died. I, like much of the world, spent the day in tears – a part of me surprised at the intensity of emotion. Messages flitted through the ether to and from friends around the world as we shared our grief at the death of a remarkable woman.

I’ve been thinking about the words used to describe her in the press, from the public interviewed at the gates of Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, Windsor Castle, at the memorial service at St Paul’s. Words like fortitude, dignity, honour, duty. Powerful words. Words that to some might appear intimidating and yet beneath all the accolades trickles a wonderful sense of humour.

Think of her role at the London Olympics with James Bond – the filming, by all accounts a secret kept from even members of her family. Think of her now famous Paddington Bear skit – that charming twinkle, the twitch of her mouth, which hinted at a delighted guffaw. The unconditional joy her Corgis and horses gave her.


How many times, I wonder, did she have to swallow a comment, to control a reaction, to hold steady – not least when wearing a 5lb crown? But also through the dramas of family life, through the tragedies that have threatened to overwhelm the country, like the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in which 116 children and 28 adults died as slurry engulfed them at school and in a row of houses; or the Dunblane school massacre in 1996. Throughout wars, heatwaves, floods, Brexit and COVID her presence remained steadfast.

Stories roll in. Anecdotes that speak to the effect the Queen has had, even two, three, four times removed, but somehow still personal. My cousin, when a child, wrote to her and received a response from her lady-in-waiting. Perhaps it was that response to a letter written to the Monarch that prompted a career in journalism – actions matter.

An American friend, Toni Lance, is an accomplished artist and bird rehabilitator who, in 1985, was commissioned to design and paint stamps for the British Virgin Islands and St. Vincent — the history of rum for the former, and birds of prey for the latter. A letter informed her that her artwork would be submitted “to the Palace for Her Majesty the Queen’s approval.” It was given.


My parents had the honour and privilege of meeting both the Queen and HRH the Prince of Edinburgh on a number of occasions – I have the embossed invitations to two, one for a reception in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the other for a similar event in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. My father was the British Honorary Consul in the Lae at the time. For those duties, and to trade and commerce, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. That ceremony at Buckingham Palace is the closest I ever got to the Queen.

However, I too had the honour to serve as Her Majesty’s Honorary Consul whilst living in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa. A very, very small part to play but one that nonetheless was a huge privilege, if at times a rather nerve-wracking one.

I spent yesterday in a haze, resentful I couldn’t be in Britain, couldn’t join the throngs walking along The Mall to Buckingham Palace. Just to be there. Unable to concentrate on anything more challenging than a jigsaw puzzle, I listened and watched as the news played across the screen, and felt hope as the King’s measured and affectionate words gave promise that the monarchy will continue, maybe differently, but still as an institution revered by many.

Word usage is my fascination, my business. Writing, rewriting, then editing again, and again, and again is what I do. Playing with words, with word sequence, until the sentences flow and the story settles into a cadence and order that pleases – until the next edit.

As I walked Stan this morning along the Boardwalk, water lapped steady and constant, a reminder that some things just are. Like the monarchy. That words like steadfast and duty are not dirty, but are what keep our world in order. I realised it is those words that underpin Have You Eaten Rice Today? The book mentions the death of the Queen’s father, George VI, in 1952 when Bob Thompson says:

“…the blighter is currently residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Changi, awaiting trail.” He looked down, smoke from his cigarette hiding his eyes. “I can’t get used to saying Her Majesty. A sad day for us all when the King died. May her reign be as beneficent.”

In the author’s note I wrote, “…this is a story of endurance, honour, duty and love —with those four things the world can be conquered.” It is perhaps a sentiment borne out by the life of Queen Elizabeth. May the words written in fiction resound in fact. May his reign be as beneficent.

God Save the King!

The Backstory

September 3, 2022 — 11 Comments

I am often asked how ideas for a book emerge. Have You Eaten Rice Today? has been fermenting for years, probably way before I decided I wanted to write books. So how far back shall I go? That’s the question. I suppose to when memories are mine and not those of others nudged to the surface by others, or photos, or books.

I’ve had a most fortunate life.

Snapshots flicker through of being a little girl in Nigeria. I remember being woken in the middle of the night by my mother because we had to evacuate the house as the one next door was a blazing pyre. I remember the smell and infernal noise. Our house did not burn. I also have happy memories, mostly centered around our last home, in Aba, our animals and the men who made our lives infinitely easier — Ali and Sam, the cook and houseboy who spoilt me and from whom I learnt much.

There were brief interludes in England where I resented being sent to a village school – an outsider in the country of my birth.

And then Malaysia.

The excitement when the P&O ship, SS Chitral, docked at Port Swettenham and Dad waving from the wharf as Mum and I waited to disembark after three weeks at sea. The warmth, the smells, the clutter of people, whilst not Africa, felt so much more me than the cool damp of a rural England. Even at six.
As the years in both Singapore and Malaysia — ten in total — added up and I reached adolescence, the stories of my parents’ meeting in the jungles of Pahang during the communist uprising known as the Emergency of the late 1940’s and ’50s, became the romantic backdrop to the country I then considered home.

My parents met on a road deep in bandit country. My father’s Jeep had broken down. My mother’s ran smoothly. He, an officer seconded to the Malay Regiment from the British Army, refused to leave his pistol. She a tall, attractive and very pragmatic Australian nurse working for the Red Cross refused to allow a weapon in her vehicle. So she left him stranded, although did leave word of his whereabouts at the next military post. Perhaps that meeting should have warned them of a volatile life ahead. As well as being a soldier, Dad was a poet, a dreamer, a man who loved to be in love. My mother was the opposite, a realist who nonetheless fell in love with the much younger man.

They left Malaya, as it still was, in 1955 and returned in 1964 with me in tow. Dad no longer a soldier, but a businessman; Mum no longer a nurse but deeply involved with the Malaysian Red Cross.
School was a melange of colours, creeds and cultures. What better way to learn about the world? Then in 1969, it was decided educational stability was needed and so I went to boarding school in Australia – an outsider in the country of my mother’s birth.

But I adapted and enjoyed the benefits of an Australian education, not just at school. And as an impressionable teenager home for the holidays, my parents’ story fascinated me. It emerged, not in one fell swoop but in dribs and drabs. I remember going to the Port Dickson Club where the manager knew Dad from his army days. We stayed at the Rest House in Raub, the village in which Mum ran a clinic — a detour on the way to the Cameroon Highlands to pick strawberries during a week’s local leave. During the Emergency, Mum also set up a clinic on the west coast of Malaya just north of Port Dickson in Tanjong Sepat – about the only place in Have You Eaten Rice Today? that is not mentioned. But it was from the townsfolk there she received the medallion with the words I stole for Dee’s present from the people of Raub.

Fire came again into my life when, one sultry night in December 1970, standing on the padang across from the Dog — The Royal Selangor Club — we watched it burn down. We had been there for dinner and carol singing. I remember the smell and the infernal noise.

After seven years in Kuala Lumpur, a slice of my heart will always be in Malaysia. The last time I visited I stood on where I calculated our house had been. A lovely old black and white torn down to make way for the Petronas Towers. I cried.


So many memories. Mine interwoven with those of my parents. But Have You Eaten Rice Today? is not my parents’ story, although I have stolen freely from their anecdotes, their papers and photographs which merged into the book of my imagination.

Dee, a delightful sprite of a character, did not come from Armidale – the town of my mother’s birth — but from Townsville in Queensland. Simon, an ex-soldier and retired rubber planter, is not my father although I have drawn from him as far as speech and a partiality to whisky is concerned. Dad did not know one end of a hoe from the other but did speak multiple languages, including Malay and Cantonese. Max. What can I say about Max? A young man searching for his own story.

London, and Dorset in the south west of England, are places I know well. I have been to Hell, and had a delicious pub lunch in Chetnole. I’ve climbed Bubb Down, and visited the church at Melbury Bubb to marvel at the rather extraordinary font with a frieze of a stag, a lion and a wolf carved from an upturned base of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Research is a delight. The tricky part for any writer is to know when to stop adding the fascinating tidbits we come across as we delve into the past.

Or just when to stop!