After three years of delays, largely caused by the COVID pandemic, the Boys and Girls Club of St. John has finally launched its first summer program.
Under the direction of Lorain “Miss Pat” Richards (director of the St. John-based Dynamic Dancers), 25 youngsters have been gathering at the Nazareth Lutheran Church parish hall in Cruz Bay for full days of activities since the school year ended.
When the academic year begins in August, the program will likely move to the Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay. A school is a fitting location, as the Boys and Girls Club is primarily an after-school program that provides tutoring, mentoring, and a structured environment to complete homework, in addition to sports, fitness, and recreational activities.
Although the program initially engages younger children, it continues to offer its members activities for character and leadership development, job preparedness, and career exploration throughout their teen years.
“We provide a home away from home, where kids can get supervision from caring, loving adults and grow up to be productive citizens,” said Jacqueline “Jackie” Brown, regional director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Thomas/St. John.
Brown has directed the club for 20 years. She retired from a 30-year career with the Internal Revenue Bureau while still in her late forties and was looking for something meaningful to do with her time. She got her wish. Now, from her office at the Oswald Harris Court housing community on St. Thomas, she plans programs, writes grants, recruits volunteers, and forms partnerships with other community organizations.
For example, on St. Thomas, the club members go sailing with the St. Thomas Yacht Club, play soccer with youth throughout the island at the Antilles School, and have story hours with members of the St. Thomas Rotary Club.
On St. John, campers take swimming lessons through the National Park Service and attend field trips to learn about turtles with the Friends of the V.I. National Park.
Maggie Day, who serves on the St. John board along with Clarence Stephenson, Jon Eichner, and David Radke, said community members have been working to get the club going for years.
They began their pilot after-school program at the Gifft Hill School in 2018. “What the school offered was awesome,” said Day, “but its location (several miles from Cruz Bay) made transportation issues a problem.”
The club was all set to go again at the Sprauve School when the pandemic hit, shutting down public schools and most recreational activities for two years.
The delay has only made the Boys and Girls Club program more critical. “During COVID, when academic instruction went digital, access to technology didn’t happen here right away,” said Day.
On St. Thomas, Day said, the youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club attended the program in small groups and kept up with their school work. According to the St. Thomas Club website, 88 percent of the members tested at grade level, and three out of four expect to complete four years of college.
Day expects the St. John Club to offer the same support to all of the children on St. John, whether they attend the Sprauve School, one of the private schools on the island, or are home-schooled. “It levels the playing field through structured academic support. The great thing about being part of a national program is that you have metrics you have to meet. They offer structure, support, and training for staff.”
Day commends Chinue Uecker, president of the board of the St. Thomas-St. John clubs, for her grant writing efforts, and the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands for their support. The club is largely funded by grants and donations from small companies, EDCs, and individuals, and community assistance is always appreciated.
Last Friday, 30 children from the St. Thomas Club joined 25 children from St. John to have a play day at the National Park playground in Cruz Bay. “The children spend so much time on social media. We just wanted them to socialize together,” said Richards.
The kids appeared eager to play ball together and frolick on the swings and slides. They also enjoyed the pizza donated by Starfish Market and the cupcakes baked by Maggie Day.
As this reporter was taking photos, 6-year-old Araiya Tonge – who happens to be Jackie Brown’s granddaughter – popped up to have her picture taken. Asked what she liked best about summer camp, she said, “You get to play, you get to go outside, and the teachers are really nice.”