Magens Bay Intends to Utilize Free Help to ‘Ramp Up’ the Park

Richard Hughes of FEMA listens as Julien Henley talks about accessibility during the Magens Bay Authority board meeting.
Richard Hughes of FEMA listens as Julien Henley talks about accessibility during the Magens Bay Authority board meeting.

For those fortunate enough to not be disabled, going to the beach is idiomatically a walk in the park.

Not so for Virgin Islands resident Julien Henley, who has been wheelchair-dependent for the last 10 years. Watching Henley get from his car to the Magens Bay Authority Board meeting in shed four on Friday illuminated the challenge of such a simple activity.

Pulling up in his specially fitted, hand-driven dark blue Toyota, Henley relied on help from one of the MBA board members to get him and his chair across the 12 or so inches of deep sand between the car and the shed and then up the four-inch high concrete lip. Henley said he would not need assistance for this simple maneuver if, along with a designated parking area, Magens provided a ramp or solid walkway from it.

Henley, an advocate with the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, attended Friday’s meeting to offer insight on the best way to create a win-win for disabled Virgin Islanders and tourists. But his ideas are not limited – and neither is he.

“What you create for individuals with disabilities benefits everybody, ” said Henley. “This will be the model for others to follow.”

The same challenge Henley faced from car to shed also goes for getting into the water, or to the aging, reasonably ADA compliant rest rooms.

“Right,” said board chairwoman Katina Coulianos. ”It’s one thing to say we have ramps [to the bathrooms]; but how do we get to the ramps?”

Warning the board to look closely at the reality of what “access really means,” Henley urged the members to be wise in their choices and planning – particularly as MBA goes forward with plans to revamp the bathhouses and concession areas.

Not coincidentally, also on hand at Friday’s meeting were four officials from three federal agencies in a position to help expand the eco-tourism and recreational opportunities at Magens Bay Park as well as accessibility.

Diedre Hewitt, brand chief with the National Park Service, enthusiastically expounded on how many ways her specific NPS agency – Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program – can help. The overall mission of the NPS assistance program, Hewitt said, includes developing signage, providing technical assistance of all types including the needs Henley expressed for disability access. Hewitt said when an applicant expresses a particular need for advice, Rivers, Trails and Conservation finds the experts. And the best part is it’s all free – including the outside consultants. “We pay for that.”

Though her agency has very little of its own funding to actually implement the programs, Hewitt’s position as inter-agency coordinator for the southeast region allows her to connect with other federal agencies – including FEMA.

Some of the things the NPS branch does besides signage, which Hewitt said they do have a small pot of money for, ranges from creating maps, designing trail connections, establishing specific community needs and developing project guidelines. The Rivers, Trails program also engages collaborative partners and stakeholders and helps identify funding sources for projects.

“All you have to do is ask,” Hewitt promised. And fill out a modest application.

For the board and the other half dozen people in attendance, Hewitt’s enthusiasm was contagious, causing the other three officials to start tossing out possibilities such as creating an app that would replace paper maps that are no so ecologically friendly, as suggested by Shersil Prentice, FEMA disability integration advisor.

The excitement generated by Hewitt and Prentice led to a motion by the board to take Hewitt up on her offer by seeking assistance from the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program – and any other opportunities arising from the meeting.

Elsa Alvear, Natural and Cultural Resources Sector director for NPS, applauded the board’s motion. And while Richard Hughes, also from FEMA, said he was quite sure all the disaster money from Hurricanes Irma and Maria had been encumbered, he could see no reason why MBA would not be able to find help through FEMA philanthropy advisors.

In other business, Coulianos announced former USVI first lady Cecile de Jongh had been chosen to join the board to complete the term of Terri Griffiths, who had offered her resignation.