Neill James is one of the legendary women of Mexico. She was the woman who donated her home and land which now is the campus of the Lake Chapala Society (LCS). 70 years later LCS is the hostess of many cultural events. Expats from around the globe gather to exchange stories, beliefs and ideas. One cannot add anything to the generosity of this woman from Mississippi! She birthed an isolated haven for those who seek that ‘something more’ to life. Being stilled by the beauty of God, Lake Chapala is a place to connect with the life Giver, the Healer, the One who distributes all gifts and His name is Jesus Christ. There are many reasons why people move to the relaxed pace of Mexico. Given a space to heal, create, to write and give back, this educated travel writer came and made a huge impact. Neill was born on a cotton plantation surrounded by the crickets and lagoon mammals of Mississippi. She could not be tamed by society. One man put a ring on her finger and that did not last long. Without children she was free to roam the planet as a fearless globe trotter. After meeting Amelia Earhart she took up a passion for traveling by air. In 1941 Neil escaped the noise of the city to find adventure in Michoacan, Mexico. On the back slide of the Popocatepetl Volcano, Neill suffered a broken leg. Recouping in Paricutin on crutches, the shelter she was in collapsed. Neill later wrote “I fell on Popocatepetl; Paricutin fell on me.”
Miss James was rescued and carried down the volcano and taken to a place far away from the volcanoes. In 1943 this wealthy and wise woman arrived in Ajijic to recover. Neill repaid the locals abundantly by teaching them to become independent. She fell in love with the sweet inhabitants of Mexico and her love was richly reciprocated. She imported silkworms in order to weave fine fabrics for the women to sell. She encouraged their art work as she negotiated with merchants to take the art to Guadalajara to sell. Miss James helped the Mexican people to become the head not the tail. Her lasting legacy continues as LCS offers scholarships for new budding artists through the Children’s Art Education Program. Nearly seven decades later a new generation of kids have emerged with the ability to be self-sustaining through their craft. Most of the galleries in Ajijic display the work of former LCS students. When Neill would travel to another country, she would pick up rare plants and bring them “home.” Today, the lush garden at LCS is still filled with some 200 varieties she personally planted. Miss James opened the first libraries in the area and she also taught cooking classes to local Mexican women. Neill went on to develop a water purifying system and helped install both electricity and the telephone. When she first arrived water was carried down the mountain by donkey and there were no connecting roads between Ajijic and Chapala. She found gold in the caves in the mountains above Ajijic and invested her money to establish schools for the local children.
The Lake Chapala Society was founded in 1955 as a cultural, social and benevolent society by Neill James. Miss James stipulated in a contract to establish LCS that the 21 expats living in Ajijic would agree to take care of her as she aged. Miss James died in 1994, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
Almost 65 years later LCS has over 5,000 expatriates from the United States and Canada. Services for members include skin cancer checks, blood pressure checks, health care services, dance classes, art classes, Spanish classes and a DVD and BOOK library with over 30,000 volumes. LCS membership includes the benefit of being in the data base of who to contact in case of emergency. Volunteers provide most of the Society’s services. It is a great place to sit and enjoy the gardens and the friendship of other expatriates.
Today the local Lakeside Artists include the indigenous Indians, as well as people from Jocotopec, Mezcala, Riberas, San Antonio, Chapala, Santa Cruz, Guadalajara and Ajijic. Painters, writers, sculptors, jewelry-makers are inspired by the tranquil water and the beauty of the amazing plants along the shores of the lake.