July 22, 2020
Family Islanders have felt the economic pressure of COVID-19 since the borders initially closed in March—the start of the high tourism season. In North Eleuthera, the joining of forces with neighbors and ex-pats, and their collective sheer will has kept them afloat.
The cost of living in Harbour Island is high compared to other Bahamian islands. To refill a 5-gallon bottle with water is $7. For an island whose population is 90% reliant on tourism, it was no surprise that three weeks into the national shut down, lines to groceries had dwindled to nothing. Most ‘Brilanders’ had gone through their savings and braced for the eye of an economic storm.
For clerical assistant, Mykell Higgs, life was “tough” before all travel was stopped. Now, as the country bans commercial travel to and from the United States, which makes up a large portion of The Bahamas’ tourism economy, Higgs, once again, is the sole breadwinner for a family of 10, including six children. She is the only non-tourism worker in her Harbour Island home.
Buying groceries, paying a mortgage, and other bills with less than $2,000 a month quickly became a strain while living on an island that is 90% reliant on tourism. So, when a community-led charitable group offered the Higgs family food, water, and monetary assistance, they were overjoyed.
“I was proud. I was impressed. I was like, ‘Wow, everyone’s working together,’” Higgs said. “I don’t think I would’ve made it if it wasn’t for them, to be honest. Every week they’ve been distributing food items, water, toiletries. I’m not just saying this to say it—they’ve been a great help.”
Briland Aid was formed by Bahamian residents and second homeowners, who combined their resources to create jobs and assist those feeling the domino effect of the global pandemic. Registered in The Bahamas, Briland Aid is a two-part charitable organization that focuses on relief and providing jobs. The organization is also in the process of becoming a 501 c3 registered entity in the United States.
Over 2,000 people living in North Eleuthera receive food, water, medication, cooking fuel, and hygienic supplies from Briland Aid. Directors, Mark Dowley and Arki Busson joined other second homeowners to raise over $1 million to pay salaries for clean-up and restoration efforts, and much needed everyday essentials.
Dowley is no stranger to charitable work, having been involved with international campaigns that have raised more than half a billion dollars for HIV/AIDS research and treatments. Busson, a Bahamian permanent resident, is well known in Wall Street circles as the founder of the EIM Group.
“All Arki and I did was help set up a structure for people to help themselves,” said Dowley about his involvement in forming Briland Aid. “I am in awe of how people have rallied around each other and pitched in. The infectious energy created by Brilanders for Brilanders is one of the most gratifying things I have ever experienced.
“At the end of the day, it’s about one word and one word only—community, and in a community, people help each other.”
Written on the cover of the organization’s portfolio are the words: ‘Bringing Us Together’ and, according to Busson, that is their greatest achievement.
“For those who have enjoyed the island for all these years, we wanted to help the Bahamian people, because they have the human resources and so we joined our resources so that they could help one another,” said Busson.
Leading the relief efforts is Tina Neely. A restaurant manager, known for her “get the job done” attitude. Neely and her team have delivered over 2,500 whole chickens, 1,700 Christmas hams, and 2,200 gallons of water weekly to households as far as Gregory Town.
It was important to the team that residents received quality products that may no longer be able to afford, including Gillette, Dove, and Secret. This thanks to the purchasing partnership Briland Aid has with Walmart and Sam’s Club in the United States.
“People were like, ‘we weren’t expecting this,’ but we felt that if it is a gift from the heart, then you’d want to give people what you would use and that’s one of the big things for us at the Briland Aid group,” she said. “We wanted people to feel real concern and that this is real care for the people.”
That infectious spirit spilled over into sprucing up the island. From tree trimming and beach clean-ups to painting and restoring the fence at an administrative building. The community, along with the local Ministry of Works team, removed 50 derelict vehicles and over 50 tons of garbage and debris.
The Job Corps program pays 70 laborers up to $400 a week. Due to the overwhelming amount of applicants and for fairness, the Briland Group categorizes each applicant by skillset, then pulls their names in a lottery. If their name is called, then they are hired until the job is completed.
According to volunteer Supervisor, Michael Johnson, he embraced the idea of making Briland better, not only for its residents but also for future visitors. He credited the ex-pats living on the island, who gave money and in-kind donations, and Eleutherans banding together to break the poor morale that had overtook the island.
“I really believe that some other Family Islands had this opportunity, not to say that Harbour Island so special, but to have these (Bahamian permanent residents) step up and wanting to help and make this contribution, it speaks good on them, too,” he said.
A small business owner, Johnson donated his company trucks and building toward the initiatives. His passion to assist other Bahamians, he said, is why he’s involved in Briland Aid.
Despite their best efforts, importing food, building material, tools, and other essentials has become challenging. After a series of courtesy calls with New Providence-based Government officials, the Briland Aid group is hopeful that they will be granted waivers on import duties and value-added tax on donated items, and looking forward to collaborating with the Government on larger renovation projects.
Briland Aid wants to transform the main gateway to Harbour Island back to its hay day, when it welcomed thousands of visitors daily, as well as rebuild the road that leads to the public dock. Renovations to the public restrooms nearby, repairs to the guardrails and boat ramp, and installation of lighting and a flagpole are also needed.
“Removing the red tape” would not only mean more donations and renovations on the island, but it would mean providing hope for families like the Higgs family, who look forward to the seeing the Briland Aid group every week.
To donate or learn more about Briland Aid’s initiatives, visit brilandaid.org.