Janet George-Carty had a big smile on her face as she snipped the bright red ribbon that hung loosely across the entrance of Francis Bay’s new accessible trail and glided in her wheelchair across the elevated wooden boardwalk .
The 650-foot boardwalk, unveiled during a Wednesday morning ceremony on September 9, now makes up the lower section of the popular Francis Bay walking trail and signifies a first step in the drive to make rugged St. John a more accessible island.
“It’s something else I can do on St. John as a mobility impaired individual,” said George-Carty, who has lived her entire life in the U.S. Virgin Islands with a mobility impairment. “And I would hope it’s a new mind set for the island.”
The idea for a more accessible island stems back from the “Building a Destination for All” vision spearheaded by Maho Bay Camp’s founder Stanley Selengut, but when national park trails were accessed for handicapped-potential, only two trails were deemed capable of improvements — at Francis and Cinnamon Bays, according to Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park president Joe Kessler.
“We’ve been talking about this for a while now,” Kessler said. “We’ve been wondering how we can make the park more accessible, but clearly St. John is not an easy place to make accessible.”
The National Park Service and the Friends partnered and applied for a cost-share grant to fund a portion of the project more than two years ago.
The roughly $40,000 cost-share challenge project was supplemented with a $20,000 in-kind donation from MSI Building Supplies which donated over 95 percent of the lumber, the national park which bought the foundation pads, fasteners and hardware, and donations from Maho Bay Camps and Maggie Day, Kessler said.
About 20 volunteers with carpenter, construction and boat building skills contributed more than 500 man hours to complete the boardwalk within seven days, he said.
“A lot of people came together to make this happen,” Kessler said. “The quality of the work is striking and really speaks to the volunteers.”
Given the hilly terrain on St. John, Kessler said it is not just people with wheelchairs who have difficulty accessing the trails and beaches on the island. Improving accessibility will benefit those who have difficulty walking or children in strollers as well.
VINP Superintendent Mark Hardgrove said Friends groups are instrumental in breaking the barriers that often plague governmental agencies and they also challenge the park to do new and different things.
“Hopefully this is the beginning of meeting the needs for greater handicapped accessibility for our visitors and residents,” Hardgrove said.
The popular trail at Francis was the first on the list to be improved, but Kessler said the next goal is raising funds to make the trails running through the Cinnamon Bay ruins more accessible.
The national park recently made the amphitheater at Cinnamon Bay more accessible by extending the concrete walkway and will be purchasing another special wheelchair designed for ease of movement in the sand similar to the one already available at Trunk Bay, Hardgrove said.
St. John Administrator Leona Smith said plans are in the works to build a Cruz Bay boardwalk stretching from the ferry dock, the Battery and the Creek designed to reduce traffic and ease accessibility for residents and visitors carrying luggage.
As George-Hardy wheeled herself around to gaze out at the boardwalk’s overlook perched in front of a small salt pond dotted with the various birds that call Francis home, she couldn’t hide her excitement.
“This is awesome — I love it, I love it!” she exclaimed. “I have to bring my grandson here. He’d love this.”