March 14, 2004 — It was a party with a purpose Sunday morning at Bethlehem House on St. Thomas. Paint brushes in hand, 103 people, including top executives from some of the biggest names in the computer industry, diligently put the finishing touches on a massive renovation project to the island's shelter for the homeless. Undaunted by the heat or the occasional rain shower, volunteers labored to the sounds of upbeat music, lively chatter and friendly competition.
The event was day one in a very special employee and customer appreciation trip sponsored by Ingram Micro, a multibillion-dollar computer goods wholesaler. The group left St. Thomas later Sunday aboard the Windspirit for a week-long cruise with stops at St. Martin, St. Barth's, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke and St. John.
Ingram Micro officials, who formed one of four teams, were easy to spot in their red T-shirts. The other teams came from Hewlett-Packard (in yellow shirts,) IBM (gray,) and Lexmark (brown.) In three hours they had transformed the two buildings of Bethlehem House, sitting side by side in Hospital Ground, to help provide temporary housing for up to 40 individuals through the auspices of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands.
"The highlight of the event is doing something to give back to the community," said Kevin Murai, head of the U.S. division of Ingram Micro.
As Mike Grainger, the company's international president, explained, Ingram Micro decided years ago that team-building activities should be more than management exercises; they should be a way to improve a community. So for each of its appreciation trips, the company chooses a worthwhile project in a given area. Last year they were in Scottsdale, Ariz., the year before, in Hawaii.
This is their second time in the Virgin Islands. Three years ago, they launched a cruise from St. Thomas with a renovation project at Unity Lodge for recovering alcoholics.
"We keep in touch with the agencies" that run the various projects, Grainger said, so there is some ongoing support as well as the major, one-time effort.
The Bethlehem House project actually started months ago with a donation from Ingram Micro. Between old age and Hurricane Marilyn, the buildings were in need of significant repair. Local contractor C. F. Rosenberg was hired to install drop ceilings and raise the walls.
Work also included plumbing improvements and some electrical work, "which was badly needed," said Alvin Henley Sr., Catholic Charities St. Thomas-St. John district manager for program operations. "It's a great face-lift that our residents and staff appreciate. A whole lot of spirits are being lifted today."
"I can't even begin to say thank you," said Richard "Sky" Gomez, the shelter manager. In his 11 years at the shelter, this is the first overhaul it has had, and the buildings are very old.
Most of the residents were not on-site Sunday, but a former resident was. Stacey Smith brought her children, Chynna, 9, and Shaquille, 11, to help her say "thank you" by telling her story to the visiting workers.
"It's a good story, but it's kind of sad," she said. Two years ago she left Washington, D.C., with her children to live with a friend on St. Thomas. But the arrangement didn't work, and she suddenly found herself homeless and jobless. "I never thought I'd need so much help," she said.
She consequently moved with Chynna and Shaquille to Bethlehem House for 90 days. Staff there helped her prepare resumes and helped her search for apartments. When she found an apartment, it didn't have a refrigerator, but Catholic Charities provided that for her. Now she has a job in a beauty shop, and the kids attend nearby J. Antonio Jarvis School and bring their report cards over to "Mr. Gomez" who rewards good grades.
"I got this much help from people who don't even know me," Smith said. "From the time I reached here, everything has been a blessing." But she stressed, "This is not a resting place. This is a pass-through."
And now that she is on her feet, she said, "If I see something (at the shelter) that needs to be done, I volunteer."
That spirit was much in evidence Sunday, as was a sense of fun.
"It's such a feeling of accomplishment," said Lexmark team member Emmy Zarek. "It's a great start to a week," her husband, Harry, added. This is the third trip for both of them.
Sean Burke and his wife, Braunwyn Windham-Burke, left their two small children at home to come on the trip. After working hard all morning, both were glowing. "It's the first thing we've done together in three years," said Braunwyn. "Without somebody asking for frosted flakes," Sean added.
The local involvement was multi-pronged, according to Michael Akin, executive director of Catholic Charities. Ingram Micro coordinated operations through group planner Judi Nagelberg of Island Meetings and Incentives. She contacted the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands for help in identifying a worthy project, and CFVI brought in Catholic Charities. Some local businesses also caught the spirit. The Paint Depot discounted paint for the project, and Boschulte Landscaping contributed a truckload of plants to spruce up the area around the shelter.
Besides what the company had already given and all the labor the visitors had donated, Grainger announced that, before they left Sunday, individual volunteers had pledged an additional $38,262 — a new record.
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