First of four parts
April 11 2004 – Dave Rivers arrived in the Virgin Islands three years ago knowing scarcely a soul in the territory. He'd never been to the islands before; in fact, he'd only heard of them a few months prior to landing on St. Croix. But when he came, he wasn't on vacation.
He learned of the islands during a few hasty phone calls placed to his father from his base of operations in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, where he'd spent much of the previous three years living and working in jungle-bound rural towns and villages, distributing medicine and setting up a basic radio infrastructure as a volunteer with various international, grass-roots development organizations.
But that part of the story comes later.
Rivers came to the Virgin Islands because his father, Dave Rivers Sr., and an associate, Randall Goulding, told him there was important work to be done. Through their involvement with an Economic Development Commission beneficiary company, Antilles Financial Group, the senior Rivers and Goulding had become acquainted with the charitable work EDC companies are required to do in exchange for the tax benefits they receive.
"We wanted to see the EDC companies live up to the full potential of the commitments they made to the community when they received their benefits," Goulding said. "Some of the companies had stepped up to the plate, but we knew that more could be done. We needed somebody with experience in this kind of work. So we contacted Dave."
Rivers hit the ground running three years ago and hasn't stopped. He has established relationships with more than 40 community and faith-based organizations throughout the territory.
"The groups I work with do everything," Rivers said. "There are after-school programs, adult education and job training centers, tutoring and mentoring programs. We're working with individuals and organizations that do crisis intervention with at-risk youth and young adults, people who assist the homeless, and teen mothers."
If you can think of something that needs doing, Rivers says, chances are somebody somewhere in the community is already working on it. But frequently, he notes, the individuals running these programs are overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks of delivering the services.
"When you've got to take care of 50 kids after school every day, make sure they're getting their homework done, coordinate with tutors and parents," he said, "you don't have a lot of time left over for things like grant-writing or acquiring new equipment and expanding your services."
That's where Rivers comes into the picture. But there's more to this story.
Recently Rivers was honored on St. Thomas at an appreciation breakfast sponsored by Sen. Lorraine Berry for supplying computers and technical support to five groups on St. Thomas and St. John. It's a task he had undertaken in his capacity as regional vice president of an organization called One Church One Family — a volunteer position.
In her speech at the breakfast, Berry said the groups will use the computers to support child and adult learning centers aimed at creating and improving basic computer skills among V.I. residents.
One Church One Family is "a magnificent concept," Berry said, adding that Rivers has done much for the territory's young people "through the donation of more than 300 computers territorywide."
Rivers likes to keep a low profile and remained quiet through much of the breakfast. He feels strongly that the attention should be given to those who are out there in the community every day; those who often, like himself, work endless hours year after year for nothing more than the satisfaction of feeling they are making a difference for the better.
"These people are the real story," Rivers said when he finally spoke, opening his arms to include representatives of the five organizations at the breakfast. "All I do is coordinate."
One Church One Family
The story that Rivers would have you hear begins in 1980 in Chicago, where an African-American priest, Father George Clements, had become alarmed by the number of homeless children living on the streets of his native city.
Lack of education, poverty, addiction and the breakdown of two-parent families had exacted a heavy price in Chicago's black community in the late '70s, forcing hundreds of children onto court-ordered welfare rolls — and from there, onto the streets.
It is hard to say how many homeless children there were in Chicago in 1980, but the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services estimates there were as many as 500.
After much discussion with state officials and his peers in area churches, Clements saw a simple solution to the devastating problem. Chicago, he reasoned, had more than 700 African-American churches, and if each church, regardless of denomination, would encourage one family in its congregation to adopt a homeless child, then the problem would be solved. Clements called his concept One Church One Child.
According to program documents, the initial plan was to create a partnership between the state of Illinois and area faith-based organizations. Church organizations would recruit families willing to adopt children in need, and the state would put up some of the money to train the adoptive parents and provide long-term resources to the families.
Clements preached the idea from his pulpit. Sunday after Sunday he urged his African-American brethren of all faiths to undertake the task of caring for the abused, neglected and abandoned children of Chicago.
At first, nobody seemed to be listening. So Clements took matters into his own hands, announcing that if nobody else would adopt a child, then he would.
That made quite a stir in Chicago, spawning front-page stories in the Chicago Sun-Times and a canonical legal battle that went all the way to Rome. Clements held his ground through the long months, claiming that his occupation as a priest should have no bearing on his right to adopt.
Ultimately, the Vatican agreed, and in 1981 Clements became the first Roman Catholic priest to adopt a child. He would later adopt three more.
Seized by the strength of Clements' conviction, clergy of all different faiths began speaking to their congregations about adoption, and One Church One Child was off and running. The partnership between One Child and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services flourished, and the number of children in need of permanent homes fell from 1,000 in 1980 to 150 by 1987.
The success of this program was not lost on the rest of the country.
In the mid-'80s One Child received a $150,000 federal adoption opportunity grant along with money earmarked for disseminating information about the plan nationwide. In 1986 Harvard University and the Ford Foundation recognized One Child as one of the nation's 10 best public-private partnerships and awarded the organization a $100,000 grant to help replicate the program elsewhere.
Since 1980 One Child, which became the adoption model of choice in 30 states, has placed 140,000 children nationwide.
By the mid-'90s Clements had broadened the volunteer structure to include community organizations of all descriptions, not just those based on a shared faith. And he had initiated two new programs based on the One Child mold.
In 1994 Clements established relationships with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Center for Substance and Abuse Treatment to create One Church One Addict. Here, the idea was to supply funding and support for organizations, families and individuals willing to "adopt" struggling drug addicts and help them along to road to a productive and purposeful life.
According to documents maintained by One Addict and its government partners, the program has helped more than 15,000 men, women and children to lead clean and sober lives.
In 1995 Clements
teamed with the U.S. Departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services to create One Church One Inmate, a program which assists inmates as they re-enter the world beyond the bars of their prisons.
The organization has helped more than 5,000 men and women return to the communities they had left behind.
The One Church trio of organizations continued to develop into the new millennium, creating strong programs across the country, with headquarters in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Florida and Texas.
Identifying needs, envisioning solutions
While still in his early 20s Rivers ran a successful business in a New England town. He had all of the things young men in America are taught to want: a flashy car, a steady and more than ample income from a company he'd built himself, the respect of his peers and his family. But, "something was missing," he says, reflecting. "You know how people talk about success. It's what we're supposed to want, right? But to me it felt like complacency. I asked myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life just kicking back and collecting a paycheck."
His answer was a resounding "no."
Uncertain about what direction his life should take, he quietly disengaged from his business, loaded up a backpack and booked a flight to East Africa, where he planned to take some time to reflect. He wanted a deeper experience of life but wasn't sure how to go about finding it.
In Africa, Rivers says, he saw an entirely new side of the world, and the experience opened his eyes.
"I walked everywhere," he said. "I climbed mountains. I lived and traveled with the Masai warriors of Kenya." Pointing to a big water bottle he carries with him at all times, he added: "I learned that to survive, you need lots of water and enough food. Everything on top of that is just gravy."
He returned to the United States still uncertain about what to do next, but with a new perspective on what matters. After a short time back on the mainland, he became interested in Jamaica.
"There are a lot of problems there," he explained. "Poverty, violence. Many families there can't afford to send all of their children to school; so, you've got a huge segment of the population that hasn't been educated past fourth or fifth grade."
So Rivers moved to Jamaica — with no other plan than to see if there was something he could do to help out. Once there, he faded into the landscape of the poorer sections of the towns. He walked the streets and introduced himself to the people, especially to the children.
"There were children, hundreds of them, thousands, who simply had nowhere to go and nothing to do," he said. "But they were bright, capable."
Struck by an idea, Rivers contacted friends in Canada who owned a roller-blade manufacturing company. He wanted to know if they would send him a few hundred pairs of in-line skates. He didn't know how to skate himself, but his idea was to start roller-hockey leagues for the impoverished children of Jamaica. His friends in Canada were more than happy to oblige.
Then Rivers pounded the pavement, drumming up interest, talking to anyone who would listen, meeting with the owners of grocery stores and other businesses willing to set aside space in their parking lots for the games, or to chip in for the hockey sticks and knee pads.
The roller-hockey leagues were a success and the community adopted Rivers, making sure that he always had a little something to eat, lots of fresh water and a place to rest his head. "When you just show up with no agenda other than to help out, you'd be surprised what people will be willing to do for you," he said. "They took care of me."
After a couple of years, however, it was time to move on. He loved running youth roller-hockey leagues in Jamaica, but something out there in the wide world was calling his name, and he had to go. He said goodbye to the community that had taken him in as one of their own and headed back to Africa.
Three years in West Africa
This time Rivers landed in the Ivory Coast. There he did volunteer development work for the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"I lived in the bush for three years," he said, a wry smile older than his 32 years crossing his face. "The way the Peace Corps operates is that they get you on the ground there, throw you into a community and tell you to get to work. The main languages of the area are French and an African language called Djoula. I didn't know a word of either."
Rivers spent his time traveling throughout the region distributing medicine and setting up local-language radio networks in places so remote that it frequently took four days or longer to travel between villages.
"In this part of the world, the radio is just about the only means of communicating and disseminating information," he said. "In most places, there is no such thing as a telephone, and you can forget about television, because it doesn't exist. We're talking about hundreds, thousands of square miles where, if you want to have any idea what's going on, you have to turn on the radio and hope it works."
He said West Africa, like much of the rest of the sub-Saharan continent, has been ravaged by AIDS and other diseases such as malaria and dysentery. He said the region is also fraught with an almost never-ending cycle of civil war and violence.
"There were many times when we'd hear over the radio that troops were on their way with guns," he recalled. "And you either had to get out of there as fast as you could, or sit tight, lie low and hope the soldiers would blow through the village without destroying it."
On several occasions the violence reached the point where volunteer development workers were urged to evacuate. But his thinking was: "What would leaving do? How is that going to help? If things get bad and you just up and leave, what was the point of going there in the first place?"
So Rivers stayed, for three years, tromping through the bush with radio equipment and carrying loads of medicine to people who would otherwise have done without. And when he did decide to leave Africa, it wasn't because of the threat of danger to himself. "I was thinking about starting a family," he said.
The choice to live and work in harm's way was one he'd made for himself, "but I couldn't make that kind of decision for a child," he said.
He was about to leave Africa, but he was by no means done with the kind of community development work he had learned there and in Jamaica. It was then that Rivers heard from his father and Goulding about a place called the U.S. Virgin Islands that could use a little help.
"Perfect," Rivers said. "I'm on my way."
Editor's note: To find out how you, your organization or your company can get involved in the work with which Rivers is involved, call him at 643-6513.
Next: Evolving an efficient way of getting things done; the work of Childworth and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
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