From sending hundreds of children to eco-camps each summer to removing the need to anchor in sensitive bays, Friends of V.I. National Park has a huge impact on this small island.
The non-profit organization started 25 years ago with just a few volunteers who would gather together informally once a month or so. Today, Friends has a full time staff of five and has overseen hundreds of thousands of dollars in programs and infrastructure supporting V.I. National Park.
Friends is celebrating its 25th birthday this week with an expo at the VINP Visitors’ Center which kicks off on Thursday, December 19, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The expo will run through Saturday, December 21.
As the group looks back over the past 25 years, Friends Executive Director Joe Kessler — who has been with the organization for half of that time — pieced together the early days.
“It started back in the 80s actually, more than 25 years ago,” said Kessler. “As most non-profits, it was less formal then. People would discuss issues about the park socially, but they were first organized in December 1988 and that’s what we count as our birthday.”
“It proceeded from there,” Kessler said. “From ‘88 to ‘95, it was a very, very informal organization, entirely volunteer. Everything was done by members of the board and a few volunteers.”
In 1995, John Garrison — whose wife Ginger worked for VINP — decided to get involved with the fledgling organization and ushered in the beginning of the modern era of Friends.
“Around 1995 John Garrison got involved with Friends of VINP and he started professionalizing the organization,” said Kessler. “He was on the board as a volunteer at first and then he was made executive director/president on a part-time basis. He eventually raised more money so he could afford to dedicate more of his time to the organization.”
Under Garrison, Friends hired its first support staff member, program manger Becky Bremszer. The two started raising some serious money for the non-profit and launched two programs which have had lasting impacts on VINP, Kessler explained.
“They got two large grants and got the archaeology program up and running and the mooring project started,” he said. “The endowment fund started then as well and then John was able to hire someone to come on as a development director thanks to an institutional support grant.”
Those great strides were made between 1995 and 2000, and Kessler — who had known the Garrisons since the early 1970s — joined Friends’ ranks in 2001.
After knowing and visiting the Garrisons for years, by 2000 Kessler had started jokingly asking when he could take the Friends of VINP job.
“When John started working for Friends, I would say, ‘Whenever you’re ready to give it up, let me know,’” said Kessler, who was living in Mali and working for the international humanitarian agency CARE at the time. “They were visiting us in Mali and we were on our way to Timbuktu and John said ‘You know you always said you wanted my job when I was leaving and we’re leaving in April if you’re interested.’”
“One thing led to another and I’ve been here since July 2001,” he said.
Over its 25 years, according to Kessler, Friends has realized four main accomplishments: the mooring field; engaging local children; the archaeology program; and helping to ensure Estate Maho Bay’s protection.
“Helping the park achieve the goal of becoming an anchorless park was a huge achievement for Friends,” he said. “The program started back with John when they did the first overnight moorings back in 1999 or so. I continued with it in Hurricane Hole and elsewhere and we finalized it this year with the big boat moorings.”
“That was a long-term goal of the park, supported by Friends,” said Kessler. “We raised over $650,000 and spent 14 years doing the project in bits and pieces when we had funding for work.”
Kessler is also proud of the work Friends has done with local children, he added.
“The summer I arrived was the first year of the eco-camps and now we’re up to 160 kids who went over this past summer,” said the Friends executive director. “Overall we get about 2,500 student days in the park either on ranger led activities, through the Annaberg Folk Life Festival, our School Kids in the Park and our Earth Day Environmental Fair. Last year alone we got over 850 kids to Hassel Island.”
“It’s safe to say that every kid on St. John, thanks to one of our projects, gets into the park at least twice a year,” said Kessler. “And now at least a third of the kids on St. Thomas as well.”
Engaging that next generation of environmental stewards is one of Friends’ most important achievements, according to Kessler.
“All of our youth programs get kids engaged in the park with the larger objective of nurturing the next generation of conservation citizens,” he said. “They are going to inherit the park and the environment and we hope to make them better prepared do that.”
While it’s difficult to measure the progress on this project — as opposed to the now completed VINP mooring field — Kessler hopes the island will see dividends long into the future.
“This is one of our goals that we’re never going to achieve because it’s an ongoing thing,” he said. “In 20 years somebody, perhaps the St. John Administrator, could say they had these formative experiences in the park as a child.”
By creating and growing the VINP archaeology program, Friends has made huge strides in helping scientists understand pre-Columbian life.
“John got a grant in the late 90s to start the archaeology program and he brought [VINP Archaeologist] Ken Wild here,” said Kessler. “Now we’re bringing in interns all year and we have a great program with the University of Copenhagen. People don’t realize that the findings from the program has really changed the understanding of pre-Columbian life in the Caribbean.”
While Friends didn’t have a lead role in the purchase and preservation of the 400-acre Estate Maho Bay, the land acquisition was so important, even the group’s small role is a significant accomplishment, according to Kessler.
“The preservation of Estate Maho Bay is something we’re very proud of,” he said. “In many ways if we did nothing else that would have been worth it. The lion’s share of the work was done by John and Trust for Public Land and I’m not taking anything away from what they did.”
“But we did play an important role and we’re very proud of the work Friends did to preserve Maho Bay,” said Kessler.
Looking ahead, Friends of VINP’s board of directors is set to create its next long-term strategic plan this coming year, Kessler explained.
“We want to continue to work with kids and continue to work with historic preservation and tell the story of the people who lived here,” said the Friends’ executive director. “As our current strategic plan winds down this fiscal year, we’re going to be asking ourselves what we want to look like.”
“Anniversaries like this are a great time to sit back and look at what you did and also an important time to look forward,” said Kessler. “That’s what we’re going to embark on over the next several months and we certainly want anyone with thoughts and ideas on that to let us know.”
As VINP, like National Parks across the country, continues to feel the pinch of budget constraints, it seems likely that Friends of VINP’s role will become even more important.
“The likelihood of the park having funding for more rangers is going to be more and more difficult,” said Kessler. “We won’t be supplying staff but we can, with volunteers and interns, help the park meet its interpretative mandate and natural resource mandate and help people enjoy the park.”
Don’t miss Friends of VINP’s 25th Anniversary Expo at VINP Visitors’ Center this week. A reception is set for Thursday night, December 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. and the expo will run through Saturday, December 21.