Friends of VINP’s New Development Director Brings Passion and Skills


Karen Vahling

Friends of Virgin Islands National Park officials recently welcomed a new development director who is as passionate about the environment as she is about the island.

With a degree from Colorado State University in Natural Resources, Recreation and Tourism with an emphasis in environmental communication, Karen Vahling seems tailor made to be the lead fund raiser for the non-profit arm of the V.I. National Park.

“I have always thought of this job,” said Vahling. “Before I even moved to St. John full time, I had my eye on Friends of the Park because I wanted to make a difference for the island. I can do that through Friends by helping them to make their programs a reality.”

“I can bring my passion and my skills to to engage people and Friends’ programs,” said Vahling. “It feels like the perfect fit for me at Friends.”

Vahling takes over the position from former Friends of VINP development director Heather Ruhsam, who recently left the post to work in the private sector.

Having spent at least six months on island annually since 1994, Vahling made St. John her permanent home four years ago. She wrapped up her university studies with an internship at the Coral Bay Community Council, which further developed her love for non-profit organizations, she explained.

“I knew I was going to be living on St. John permanently and I wanted to be able to bring tools that would make a positive change on St. John,” Vahling said. “I also studied non-profit work and parks management among others things while getting my degree. My final course in my degree was my internship at the Coral Bay Community Council becuase I’m very interested in non-profit work.”

After wrapping up her internship, Vahling was hired as executive director of the Island Green Building Association, which she helmed for the past three years. Overseeing the group since its infancy, Vahilng was instrumental in developing IGBA’s public forums, eco-building certification programs and the popular ReSource Depot recycled goods center.

“I pretty much did everything at IGBA from program development to fund raising and grant writing,” said Vahling. “I also evolved the ReSource Depot.”

While admitting that it was “a little hard” to step away from the group she helped usher to a new level of popularity and impact, Vahling is content with the knowledge that IGBA will continue to positively shape the future of St. John.

“I like knowing that IGBA is something that is going to keep having a positive impact on St. John and that fulfills my personal mission,” she said.

Even for Vahling, who is an avid diver and environmentalist who was familiar with Friends of VINP’s work, the group has already impressed her.

“The programs developed by Friends are more in-depth and beneficial to St. John than I ever realized,” said the new development director. “As a St. John resident I didn’t realize what a well-run and committed organization it is and how impacting Friends is on St. John. They’ve done some really good things for the island.”

Vahling pointed to the extensive VINP mooring program which has made the park anchor-free as just one instance of the group’s important work.

“The Friends oversaw the installation of over half a million dollars in moorings and since they put them in, the sea grasses and corals have all grown in where it was all torn up from anchors before, and not only in the VINP, but in the monument too.”

While looking ahead to the group’s annual gala celebrating 25 years of Friends of VINP in February, as well as an online auction in November, Vahling is also hoping to hear from residents about the kind of programs they want to see on St. John.

“I’d really like to hear from local people and visitors about what they see as their passions and their priotities here on St. John,” said Vahling. “My passion is the environment, marine life and coral reefs. It’s about peace in nature and access to that through the park.”

And commuting from her Coral Bay home to Friends of VINP’s Mongoose Junction office, has helped Vahling put the importance of VINP into perspective, she added.

“I have the best commute,” said Friends of VINP’s new devleopment director. “I was driving on North Shore Road this morning and thinking about all the things along the way that Friends has had something to do with. There are so many things Friends has done over the 25 years that we all enjoy and sometimes we don’t realize it.”

“We sometimes take it maybe a little bit for granted all the work Friends does,” Vahling said. “But the park and Friends impact us every day. It’s where we go to heal, it’s where we go to spend quality time with friends, where we get married, where we go to exercise and where we go to teach our children.”

While there are many reasons to support Friends of VINP, the biggest may be the the impact the group has on the future, Vahling explained.

“There are so many good reasons to take care of the park and to make it an accessible resource that people can learn from today,” she said. “The biggest reason might be how we carry those values forward to tomorrow. Little kids going on VINP programs and engaging in the park and learning; those are tomorrow’s environmentalists.”

To learn how to get involved with Friends of VINP or to make a donation, email vahling at or call 779-4994.