Building a house, making a home

The Koven family has made a life on Bequia, and when opportunities arose to give back, they did that, too. 

By Glen Herbert 

Nina Koven Arnett first started visiting Bequia in the early 1970s, typically arriving each spring or summer to visit her grandparents, Jane and Gus Koven. For a kid it was all quietly, brilliantly magical, and many of Nina’s memories are from a distinctly child’s eye view. “They had a windmill,” she recalls. “They powered an old battery with it so we would have electricity for a little while in the evening.” Sometimes the power would last all evening, sometimes not. “I remember there was a big snake that came in while someone was sleeping one time. And there were manicous. … It felt like a real adventure, because you never knew what was going to happen.”

Her grandparents grew vegetables, which was typical for the time, and also raised sheep and lamb. They first lived at Welk House (“It had a thatched roof” she says, something that, again, would really draw a kid’s eye) while they built a home on the hill. “They bought it in the early 60s from Mrs. Ollivierre,” she says. “Everyone walked. That’s how you got around. And even when they were building Hope house, they carried all the rocks up from the beach. It was pretty incredible.” They’d walk up from town, past where Mrs. Olliverre used to live. “And there were two cement tracks that my grandfather put in that went down the hill and up to Hope.”

From the beginning there was a sense of working with others to create something together. Nina recalls that the property most days was a hive of activity, with people tending the gardens, harvesting the vegetables. She says with a chuckle that Bequia “is not a place where you’re going to sit on a beach and someone’s going to deliver you a cocktail with an umbrella in it.” And that’s precisely what she loved about it then, and continues to love about Bequia now. “It’s a real community.”

That sense of community has become the most lasting memory. “We’re still really close to Eldica Simmons who used to cook for my grandparents when they first had the house in the 60s. Now she lives right down in the harbour, so we still see her. She makes mango chutney for us.” She remembers Herman McDonald, who died a few years ago, in 2017. “He was with us for like twenty-five, thirty years.”

Her grandparents had five children, her father Ted, Gay, Connie, Gus, and Tom. With all the cousins, too, time spent on Bequia often had the feel of a homecoming. “All the kids … we all went down and spent years growing up in Bequia,” she says. “My cousin Pam and I would go down together and sometimes we’d sail from Grenada up to Bequia, stay there for a couple weeks, and then sail back to Grenada. There were times we all went, all the grandchildren.” In the early days, just getting there was part of the adventure. “There was no airport of course, and usually you got stranded, either at St. Vincent or Barbados. It was very infrequent that you could do the whole trip in a day. There was always something that happened.”

“It’s just a way to give back.” 

The connection with the island grew over the years, and with it grew the desire to give back. This particularly in light of some of the unique challenges that the people there were facing, including vision problems, food security, education. “Those kinds of things affected people that we knew,” says Nina. “I think that’s really the biggest thing. … we knew so many people that had problems with their eyes. People were going blind, including Eldica Simmons.”

They wanted to help, and they did. That was the impetus behind the Koven Family Foundation, which has quietly, consistently, been doing such great work on the island. While they haven’t put their names on anything—and certainly don’t intend to—looking around, there are so many initiatives that they’ve either created or supported. The Sunshine School and the hospital. The Anglican Church. The recycling program, by Action Bequia, is one that they supported from the earliest days. They’ve sponsored eye surgeries, and distributed pairs of glasses to school children.

Most recently, of course, they’ve contributed substantially to the vaccine program. “It’s really important,” says Nina. It’s important in the way that eye surgery and glasses are, supporting the health and welfare of the population. But it’s important in other ways too, something that certainly isn’t lost on the directors of the foundation. People want to work, and the vaccine program is the shortest path to a renewed economy. Nina’s aware that not everyone is a fan, and that there continues to be a lot of noise around vaccination both on Bequia and beyond. Worse, perhaps, are those who see the vaccine program as coercive. It isn’t, and that’s a message that Nina wishes more people could hear. The support of the program, she says, “is just because we love Bequia, and the people there. Everyone has always been good to us. It’s just a way to give back.“

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