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On Island Profile: Arnel Benjamin

May 23, 2005 – Arnel Benjamin has a bit of a cold. She has just spent a week in New York chaperoning about 90 students on a band trip; her daughter, 15-year-old Kamila was one of them. Benjamin's other daughters, Patricia, 20, a student at UVI, 16-year-old Aretha, and 10-year-old Adia also get the benefit of their mother's parental involvement.
"I give them tools to work with. It's up to them to decide what they want to come out of life," Benjamin says.
She has spent most of the last 30 years as a full-time volunteer. In between those hours, the Benjamin family travels together, dines together, and when things get rough, have family meetings together. "Teenagers can give us a run for our money. I don't want to be too overprotective of them because of what happened to Gail and Roy Jr."
Benjamin is speaking of a family tragedy in 1984, when she and her husband, Roy, lost their first two children in a house fire.
"The whole island was out of power. I was putting them to bed and fell asleep." When Benjamin woke to a bright light, she thought the power had come back on. Instead the house was engulfed in flames.
Her children never made it out of the home that night. She found out later they had died of smoke inhalation.
"The community really came out for us. I give thanks to them and to God."
She also says the tragedy saved a lot of lives as people became more aware of fire safety.
"God knows best. Everybody says 'don't question it,'" says Benjamin. "It's not us alone who were suffering in the world. That gave me the strength to give back to my kids, other kids and the church."
Before the fatal fire, she worked at E. Benjamin Oliver School with Miss Casey, and then at Ulla Muller Elementary School where she with advanced placement students for 10 years.
After the deaths of her children, she transferred to Lockhart Elementary because, "it was too far to drive back and forth from the school to the cemetery," she says.
"I continued volunteering because that's how I am. I have a duty to give back," Benjamin says. Sad but not broken, she and her husband decided to have children again a year after the fire.
Two years later Benjamin opened a daycare in Sugar Estate. "The day care was an opportunity to have my own business. I was into kids. It was an opportunity to realize I could help other kids."
The R and G Daycare, so named after Roy Jr. and Gail, was open for ten years with spaces for 12 infants and 12 toddlers.
When her own children started school, Benjamin closed the daycare and resumed her volunteer work.
"My main school is Lockhart Elementary, where Adia goes." Benjamin volunteers in three classes there, for Ms. Casey, Ms. Vanterpool and Miss Squiabro, filing and correcting papers, and helping to prepare lessons. Another school that sees her smiling face these days is Addelita Cancryn Junior High, where she helps with the band, is a student council advisor, and a field trip chaperone. Also on the list is Charlotte Amalie High School, where she works in the library and for the science fair.
"I was active in the science fair and social studies with Mr. Paul," says Benjamin. "I go on field trips with the A.P. [advanced placement] biology class. I was involved with the accreditation process as a hostess; I made sure everyone got what they needed." She also regularly volunteers in the school library.
"I spend a lot of hours. It's too many to really count," says Benjamin. "Even on Saturdays and Sunday's I'm still giving time to the Junior Fire Fighters."
Benjamin also gives time to the Lutheran Church of Reformation where she is a member.
"I'm trying to do the right thing, trying to keep my head high and make sure my children do the same," she says. "I tell kids not to be followers. Be leaders, and think and do things for you."
A lot of people are thankful to Benjamin for all she does, but she is more interested in thanking others. "Most of all my husband, Roy Benjamin. Without a good husband who lets me do what I like best—taking care of kids, and not just my kids," Benjamin says she wouldn't be able to do all that she does.
She also gives her husband credit for helping around the house. "He cooks a lot. He's one in a million."
Recently, teachers from the social studies department at CAHS recognized Benjamin for her long years of service, and named her the Most Dedicated Parent of the Year. She was honored by the award, but says she does it for the kids, not the recognition.
"I give them advice. They respect me and that's the key. I will always be there for any kid at any time," she says. Benjamin has a message to all parents who have the time to give. "Check on your kids. And don't just get involved with the kids, talk to their teachers to find out how they can excel. Try to volunteer, just one or two hours would be good."
Some advice for other parents, don't be afraid of your children. "A lot of things are going on out there. Don't be afraid to question them."
"We need parents to come out and pick up report cards, go to PTA meetings, come out to see what teachers are saying," says Benjamin, who tries her best to be at every meeting.
"I have parents tell me I can do this [volunteer] because I'm not working. When I was working I did it anyway. I make the time," Benjamin says.
When she turns 51 on May 25, Benjamin says will quietly reflect on her life, remembering as she always does, Roy Jr., with whom she shares her birthday. "We have to live," she says, adding, "I'm enjoying life."

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