Friends of V.I. National Park enthusiastically welcomed Heather Ruhsam on board last week as the non-profit group’s new development director.
While Ruhsam brings years of experience in marketing, public relations and event planning to Friends of VINP, her most important asset is more difficult to quantify.
Ruhsam — who moved to the island with her parents when she was 15 — brings close relationships with a wide range of St. John residents to her new position as head of fund raising for the non-profit group, explained Friends’ executive director Joe Kessler.
“We had quite a number of good candidates for the position and some of them had stronger technical fund raising experience,” said Kessler. “But we were looking for someone with the qualities that we could make into a great fund raiser. It takes a lot to get used to St. John and live here, so having someone on board who was raised here is really valuable.”
“A lot of this work is all about relationships,” Kessler said. “If you come in with strong relationships in the community, you’re already ahead of the game.”
Ruhsam is just as thrilled to be a part of the Friends of VINP team as they are to have her.
“A few weeks before the position became available someone asked me, ‘if you could have your choice of a job on St. John, what would you do,’” said Ruhsam. “Honestly I said, ‘the development director job at Friends because it incorporates community involvement, preservation of the environment and I could use my skill set.’”
“A few weeks later the position became available and I handed in my resume that same day,” Ruhsam said. “To say I was excited is an understatement.”
As a young professional, Ruhsam also brings a fresh perspective the organization, Kessler explained.
“One thing that we’re really jazzed about with Heather is that we really want to reach out to the next generation in the Virgin Islands and she has a great network of young professionals,” he said.
Tapping into the younger crowd of donors is necessary for the continued preservation of the island, according to Ruhsam.
“We have to nurture that next generation and look at the way and the why they give,” she said. “It’s a bit different and I think I can break into that. I would like to see our membership increase and diversify more.”
After graduating from college, Ruhsam tried her hand a big city living in Los Angeles, New York and even Sydney, Australia, but kept finding herself back home in Love City.
“I was in L.A. and I felt like I needed a break so I came back home,” Ruhsam said. “The longer I was here the more it felt right. That was a year and a half ago.”
“Finally I said, ‘I guess I’m not going back — this is what works for me,’” said the Friends new development director.
Living on such a small island, it’s vital to get involved with the community, according to Ruhsam.
“It’s such a small community here you have to get involved,” she said. “We have to make sure to nurture the next generation who will become the stewards of the island.”
Just one week into her position, Ruhsam has been enjoying support from the entire community.
“I have had overwhelming support from people who saw me grow up or grew up with me,” said the new Friends development director.
“We’re totally jazzed to have Heather on board,” said Kessler. “She has a great personality and is a great addition to the Friends team.”
Ruhsam jumped into her new position with both feet, working with the Friends’ Board of Directors and Advisory Board on the Seventh Annual Beach to Beach Power Swim, which is on Sunday, May 30.
The open water swim starts at Maho Bay and participants can do one of three courses. The shortest course is a one mile swim to Cinnamon, or swimmers can continue on to Trunk Bay for a two-and-a-half mile trek. The longest course ends at Hawksnest Beach and is a three and a half mile swim.
Making the swim accessible to more than just elite swimmers, participants can enter as a relay team and there is even an assisted category, which allows the use of snorkels and fins.
With the race just more than a month away, the first practice swim is scheduled for Sunday, April 18, at Maho Bay beach starting at 8:30 a.m.
Funds from the event go to support Friends’ popular summer eco-camps at the V.I. Environmental Resource station.
“The more money we raise, the more kids we can send to the camps,” said Kessler.
In addition to expanding the camps to include a component for older students, Friends is also unveiling a Ranger in Training program this summer, explained Ruhsam.
“It will be a five day program geared to middle school and high school students,” she said. “It will give them an opportunity to see what happens in the everyday life of a ranger in the V.I. National Park.”
For more information on Friends and the Beach to Beach Power Swim, check out the group’s website at friendsvinp.org, or call 779-4940.