Third of four parts
April 20, 2004 – While he's working, Dave Rivers rarely stops moving. Asked to describe an "average" day, he says: "I drive around and meet with groups I'm already working with, or with groups that want to work with us. I talk with them about what they need, what they're doing, and see what I can do to help."
Working alone at first, then with social worker associate Rebecca Dedmond, and eventually as the volunteer regional vice president of One Church One Family in the Caribbean, Rivers has spent the last three years getting to know hundreds of people throughout the Virgin Islands. (See "On the paths of others Dave Rivers finds his way".)
Helped out by One Family and a number of private companies, Rivers and Dedmond have managed to create a network of support for community, faith-based and not-for-profit organizations of many descriptions. Whether working with a center that provides assistance and temporary housing for teens in crisis on St. Croix or a church-based youth after-school program doubling as an adult learning center on St. John, their eagerness to speed the flow of resources throughout the territory knows few limits.
After spending two years "running all over" the territory, getting the ball rolling with Rivers, Dedmond recently relocated to Washington, D.C., where she is a professor of social work and director of the school guidance program at George Washington University. She still works closely with Rivers and One Family, however, and makes regular visits to the territory.
"None of this could have happened without Rebecca," Rivers said of Dedmond. "She's an amazing woman."
But Rivers and Dedmond are both quick to point out their shared view that the work they do is only a small part of the equation.
"There are so many incredible people doing such important work," Dedmond said.
The two examples in the descriptions that follow come from interviews with the people in charge of just two of the more than 40 groups that Dedmond and Rivers work with.
Harriett Williams / Helping Children Work Inc.
Harriett Williams' dream come true is an unassuming, single-story white building in the Grove neighborhood of St. Croix where, on any given afternoon, someone passing by will be treated to the sights and sounds of a dozen or more children at play in the yard.
A glance through the front door of Williams' dream-turned-real reveals still more children, many more. Computers, monitors and keyboards ring the room in a buzz of electronic activity. Here, two seventh graders are helping each other pick out the next book they'll order from an online reading club; there, giggling boys try to best each other at a video game.
In another room are rows of tables where Education Complex High School juniors and seniors are busy tutoring younger students in math and science, English and history.
In the side yard, a couple of older teens work with rakes and shovels to clean up the grounds as part of the 500 hours of community service they must complete by graduation time.
The building and its environs are a buzzing hive of youthful activity kept safe and productive under Williams' watchful eye. Helping Children Work Inc. is, after all, her dream, and she takes very good care of it.
"We opened our doors to the community in November of 2002," Williams explains going on to detail how the community center has continually grown since then. Now it functions not only as an after-school program for younger students, but also as a place for learning and tutoring, including adult training for people to learn how to operate word-processing, spread-sheet and financial software. Workshops are held here; classes are taught.
"We've done conflict-resolution programs," Williams says, clearly proud of all she's accomplished. "We've held African dance lessons here, and taught the kids Senegalese songs and stories. We've even taught a forestry class, and next year we're participating in the adopt-a-tree program, so the children will get to pick out a tree and take care of it."
In the backyard, a new structure is being built to house a ceramics studio. Making use of donated equipment, Williams is looking forward to a time, soon now, when members of the community young and old can learn clay crafts.
Williams' story of her life and how she has come to open and operate the center is not unlike the stories of many Virgin Islanders.
She was born on St. Croix and raised in Grove, mere steps from the community center she runs. By the time she was a teen-ager, however, she'd already bounced from St. Croix to New York City and Antigua. "My mother was a bit of a gypsy," she says now of those early years.
Between moves she managed to spend some time in school on St. Croix, first at what used to be called Grove School, now Eulalie Rivera Elementary, and then at Central High.
But as a young woman, Williams says, she discovered her own inner gypsy and, after marrying a military man, she lived in Hawaii, Kansas, Georgia and once again the Big Apple.
Twelve years ago, though, St. Croix called her home again, and that's where she's been ever since.
Williams says she raised two children "more or less as a single mom" and that it was this experience that most influenced her decision to make her dream of a community center a priority.
"When I moved back to New York the second time, my daughter was a teen-ager," she relates. "She went to a public high school at first, and though she was an intelligent, kind and thoughtful young lady, I could see her transforming almost daily right in front of my eyes."
A new environment with no shortage of negative influences and role models was affecting her daughter in ways Williams did not like.
"She needed positive activities and a better environment," Williams says, "so I switched her to a wonderful high school that was actually housed inside a college campus, and we focused on finding positive ways to keep her busy."
Her daughter is now a law student at Howard University. Her son is a high school student on St. Croix and Williams says his help with the center has been invaluable.
The Helping Children Work center was three years in the making and required, as she puts it, "a lot of help."
The building was "a real eyesore. Hurricane Marilyn had destroyed it," she said. And the owner, a friend of the family named Lionel A. Lang, had no plans to repair it.
Williams went to Lang with her idea of turning the abandoned structure into a community center, and he agreed to a deal. She would put on a new roof and make other much-needed repairs, and he would donate the use of the building and property to Williams free of charge for a period of at least 15 years.
Williams, who was a police officer working a school security detail at the time, went to the Law Enforcement Planning Commission for the initial funding. LEPC came through with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The center was physically on its way, and that's when Rivers and Dedmond showed up.
Williams' initial vision was specific. She didn't want just a playground for neighborhood children; she wanted a place where learning would be encouraged and facilitated. She wanted a place that would foster inquiry and creativity. These days, all of that needs one key common ingredient: computers.
"Dave and Rebecca gave us our first 10 computers," Williams says, "and that allowed me to do a lot of other things with the grant money that wouldn't have been possible without their help."
Williams says she's delighted with all the help she's received over the years. "We've been so much supported by the community, not only here in Grove, but from businesses, too.&quo
t; The program has received sizable donations from two Economic Development Program beneficiary companies, Millennium Management and V.I. Rum Industries.
But Williams always returns to the main reason she's doing all of this: the children.
"You hear so much about the negative things the kids do," she says. "As a policewoman I was really exposed to it. But the kids here have been absolutely wonderful, and they're doing positive things all the time. The kids here have really stepped up to the plate."
One of those youngsters, Brian Bikar, is an eighth grader at Arthur A. Richards Junior High School who says he loves spending his afternoons at Williams' center. He uses the computers — all of which have high-speed wireless Internet connections — to "do research, learn, write and play games."
Prior to the opening of the center, Brian says, he "just went home, did homework or watched television." Many of the other students at the center echoed this statement, including Education Complex freshman Debbieann Newton.
At the end of the school day, she used to go straight to her house, Debbieann said. But since she's started spending her after-school time at the center, where she is receives tutoring in math, science and sometimes English, her grades "have gotten a lot better." She eagerly pointed out that she recently received an "A" in her Caribbean History class.
The other children agreed that they enjoy being in a place where there are others their own age to learn from and to play with. Brian spends time at the center doing homework and getting help four days a week with math, the subject he finds most challenging. But what he likes most is that "I get to meet good people here," he says with a big smile before diving back into the video-game he's playing with two friends.
Luz Walters / The Harvest
Luz Walters' business card states that she's an employment consultant. Like other professionals in this field, she works with a select list of clients who are trying to find jobs. Operating her business, The Harvest, in St. Croix's troubled economy where the official unemployment rate is well into the double digits makes the task of matching personnel with prospective employers that much more difficult.
But after three years running her own company, making ends meet despite a lengthy recession that has hit St. Croix harder than other islands in the territory, one might say she has been successful.
Of the 75-plus people who've sought out her services since she opened her doors, Walters says she has found permanent placement for more than 85 percent. That's an impressive figure by itself, but if job satisfaction is also a measure of success, then Walters is at the top of her game.
"I love to go to my job in the morning," she says. "I just love it. How many people do you know these days who can say that?"
She says her satisfaction comes from watching her clients succeed. "It might take three months to place a person in a job; it might take four or five," she says. "But I'll work with each one for as long as it takes, and the sense of pride they'll find in their new job — it's hard to describe."
There's one more thing that makes her accomplishments particularly impressive: Her clientele consists entirely of the physically, mentally and emotionally disabled.
Walters moved to St. Croix from Puerto Rico with her family when she was 4 months old and, despite some time spent on the mainland, has called the island home ever since.
After attending the University of the Virgin islands, she took a job as a pharmacy technician and settled into adulthood. She married, had two children and was more than pleased with her life.
But she found her work wasn't quite as satisfying as she had hoped. So, 12 years ago, she responded to an ad for a position in a field known as "supported employment." And despite having no experience in this line of work, she landed the job.
"They sent me to a center in New Hampshire to begin my training," she says, and to this day her training hasn't stopped. "Working with disabled people requires ongoing learning," she explains. "There are advances in our understanding of various disabilities all the time."
Walters says the job turned out to be her calling, and by 2002 she had gained enough experience to feel comfortable starting her own company, The Harvest. Nearly three years later, with the help of operations manager Edna-maye Belardo and employment specialist Priscilla Ramos, business is going well.
The people she works with come to her with many different stories. Some have never worked before and arrive on the doorstep of The Harvest without skills or experience; others have lost their jobs and need help making their way back into the work force. There are those, too, who have become disabled later in life. Such cases are relatively rare, but Walters spoke of one man she helped to find work who had become paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident.
Whatever the individuals' stories, Walters' job is to get them to work.
Clients are referred to The Harvest by the Human Services Department's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Walters says Human Services does "a wonderful job," and that when she meets referrals for the first time to assess their skills and goals, many already have received education and job training made possible by the department.
Walters assesses a job-seeker's skills and interests, finds out what kind of work he or she wants to do, contacts potential employers and then, when a suitable job has been found, goes to work, literally.
"We will go to work with them every day," she says. "As soon as they begin to feel comfortable we'll cut back an hour, then two, and so on until they can do the job alone." She says the staff of The Harvest can work with an individual for up to 18 months, but they often are able to complete the process successfully in five or six.
The disabilities she deals with range from mild to severe. In the case of the former, all that may be required is a day or two on the job for the person the adjust to the new environment and job requirements. But clients with more serious mental and emotional disabilities may need several months of intensive assistance before they can work on their own.
Whatever is needed is what Walters and her colleagues provide, and just because a client has been placed and can work at the job alone doesn't mean the work of The Harvest is done. "Supported employment is forever," Walters says. "Whenever it's time to learn something new, an employer can call us and we'll come to the work place and do the training."
She has placed clients into a range of jobs — stock clerks, administrative assistants, factory workers, mechanic's helpers and dining room attendants, among others.
"The people we work with are proud of their jobs," she says. "I can't tell you how many times we've seen them come back to the office to show us their first paycheck."
The relationship of The Harvest with Rivers, Dedmond and One Family came about at the latter's initiative.
"Rebecca came to my office one day and asked me what we needed, Walters recalls. "I said we could use a few computers to help with training and reading programs."
The computers arrived, and now clients of The Harvest use them to develop and sharpen a variety of skills which make gainful employment a dream they can achieve.
And just as Walters' support work is forever, so, it seems, is Rivers'.
"There was a big lighting storm a couple of months ago," Walters said. "I'm not sure what happened, but when I came to work the next day, two of our computers were completely destroyed. I called David and told him what happened, and next month he's bringing us brand ne
Next: One Family's plans for further involvement, Delegate Donna M. Christensen's work with the group, and local companies' commitment to the causes that Rivers represents.
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