Snorkeling, Hiking and S’Mores — VIERS Eco-Camps Offer Fun Education

Snorkeling the pristine waters off Lameshur Bay, roasting marshmallows over a roaring campfire and hiking along a remote rocky shoreline are just a few of the exciting activities more than 80 Virgin Islands children between the ages of 7 and 12 will enjoy this summer.

Twenty children taking part in the first of four free Eco-Camps scheduled for this summer met at the V.I. Environmental Resource Station on Monday, July 12, and got the fun started right away.

“I love roasting marshmallows,” said six-year-old Phoenix Rose. “You use two marshmallows to make one S’more. They’re really good.”

Eleven-year-old Tyreqe Morton got an eyeful while snorkeling, he explained.

“My favorite thing so far was snorkeling,” said Morton. “I saw a big stingray.”

“I like all the pretty fish I saw when we went snorkeling,” said seven-year-old Arianna Poston.

Sponsored by Friends of V.I. National Park, the VIERS Eco-Camps have become popular and much-anticipated three-day, two-night trips for children from across St. John and St. Thomas.

Arianna Poston gets an up-close look at an urchin during the first of four scheduled Eco Camps at VIERS.

Friends of VINP has been sponsoring the camps for a decade now with this year’s funding compliments of Lana Vento Charitable Trust, Disney Cruise Line, International Capital and Management Company, Innovative, Kids First!, Windward Capital, Graystone Building and Rotary Club of St. John.

The St. John non-profit group maintains its dedication to the VIERS Eco-Camps in order to foster an interest in the environment in the next generation, explained Friends’ development director Heather Ruhsam.

“This is all Virgin Islands youth,” said Ruhsam. “We’re trying to get kids to understand and appreciate, from a very young age, the environment and how important the VINP is here. As the next generation, this is their future.”

Friends makes a concerted effort to recruit campers from public schools across Love City and Rock City, Ruhsam added.

“We try to recruit from public schools across the island and St. Thomas,” she said. “We also try to get kids who haven’t been out here before, but the camps are so popular we do get repeat campers.”

Even repeat campers, however, learn something new each summer at VIERS. Several years ago campers learned about the severe coral bleaching episode that plagued the territory.

This year campers have been learning about the oil spew in the Gulf of Mexico and the impact of heavy rains on mangroves, explained Eco-Camps education coordinator Hilary Maynard.

“This year we have some new activities and we’re doing more hikes,” said Maynard. “We have a diorama of a hillside and coastline with mangroves which shows the effects of runoff and sedimentation. It’s been really rainy this year so we’ve been discussing the impacts of that.”

“We’ve also been talking a lot about the Gulf of Mexico and what is happening to the environment up there,” Maynard said.

Working with the VIERS Eco-Camps for the past eight years — and as education coordinator for the last three years — Maynard knows exactly what material campers cover each summer.

“We always try to talk about things that are current and expand the activities we offer each year,” she said.

While discussing current events, the campers also had the opportunity to hear from Lianne Jacobson, a master’s student at Cal State in North Ridge, who is studying coral at Lameshur, collect animal life from the bay and identify organisms under a microscope.

In addition to Eco-Camps, 12 students between the ages of 13 and 16 will spend five days at VIERS this summer for a Science Camp, designed to further encourage a stewardship of the island’s resources.

“The Science Camp is a more in depth look at everything,” said Friends’ Ruhsam. “The whole purpose is to introduce the campers to the coastal and terrestrial ecosystems and to nurture the next generation of stewards. We want to get them interested in marine biology and environmental studies.”

With the worldwide economy still recovering, Ruhsam was thrilled to welcome two new Eco-Camps and Science Camp sponsors to fill the funding gaps this summer.

“Kids First! and Windward Capital are new contributors this year and we’re really happy to have them on board,” said Ruhsam. “Kids First! generally supports early learning centers and they’re supporting us since we foster education during the summer months. The camps are a great educational opportunity for kids during the summer time.”

While the campers are certainly learning valuable lessons and hopefully starting life-long relationships with their environment, don’t harp on that too much. It might ruin their fun.