Nov.6, 2005Wearing a simple gray tee shirt and sweat pants on a Sunday afternoon, Derek Gabriel may seem like just an average 22 year-old. But for those who know him, he is something elsea caring, idealistic native son who has returned home to make a difference in the St. Thomas community.
"I think it's really important for people to make a difference here at home before venturing out into the world," Gabriel says. "And being a young person in the community helps inspire other young peoplegives them a positive image and tells them there are opportunities at home which they should take advantage of."
A recent graduate of the University of Delaware, Gabriel practices what he preaches. During the day, he works as an aide to Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, and coaches a boys' football team in the afternoon. He also makes time during the week to help public school students enrolled in the Reading to Achieve Book Cluban activity which Gabriel calls the "best part" of his job because of his proximity to the kids, and his ability to teach them about V.I. history and culture.
"It's really the first thing I grabbed onto when I started working at the Legislature," Gabriel said of the program, which he and Malone helped to improve during the summer of 2005. Gabriel said the Book Club, operating in 12 out of 13 of the islands' schools, helps about 600 students during the year by building reading skills, educating about V.I. heroes, and allowing them to participate in events with the program's co-sponsor the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association.
Last year, for example, Gabriel said students had to learn about their schools' namesakes. "I remember Ulla F. Muller actually came down to the school and talked to the kids, and they got to ask her questions," he says. "They really liked that, and to tell the truth, I did too. She's definitely one of the V.I.'s heroes."
Currently, the program is requiring that its participants read eight books during the yearthree of which have to have a Caribbean theme. "This helps the kids cultivate a sense a pride and ownership of culture," Gabriel said. "And it's really great when you go out in public and parents come up to you and say, 'Oh, my kid can't put that book down,' or 'wow, this program's really helping them.'."
Gabriel added his admiration for the Book Club grew when he saw standardized test scores in the territory increase over the past year. "And that's why I'm doing this because programs like these really make a difference."
When he's not doing the reading program, Gabriel continues his work with students by coaching the boys' junior varsity football at All Saints for two hours every day. "It's really a great way to wind down in the afternoons," he said. "In the Legislature you're very focused on serious issues, but coaching gives you a different focus. It is lighter, but at the same time, I'm still helping kids by teaching them about teamwork, and leadership skills."
In addition, Gabriel says he enjoys coaching because he wants to give his players the support they need in order to pursue careers in the athletic field. Students on the mainland have more resources in the sports arena, he said, and it's time the V.I. had those too. "There is an emphasis on academics in societywhich is greatbut some kids are great athletes and people don't see that. And we need to support them so they can use sports, and their talents, as another career venue."
Sounding his age for a minute, Gabriel said he also loves coaching for his alma matter, alongside his longtime best friend Paris Nicholson.
When asked what he plans on doing in the future, Gabriel smiles and says he's not sure. Working at the Legislature, he says, was a natural transition for him because he spent time in 2002 and 2004 as an intern for Delegate Donna M. Christensen. "I had known Sen. Malone for years, but he was also the Delegate's office manager when I interned for her the second time. He offered me a position working for him, and that seemed like the next step for me. I may just continue that — transition to a position more in the forefront where I can help the community even more directly."
For the time being, however, Gabriel said he's content. "I really, really like it here," he says of his home-island. "I missed it when I was away at college. And I like that I'm able to do something which impacts the younger generation — because they're the next ones to be up there, in the spotlight, doing things for the community."
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