March 30, 2008 — Anna Francis knows every tree, every plant, every rock, every bit of flora and fauna at Camp Umoja intimately — and with good reason. "God gave it to me," she smiles.
Actually, she and her husband, Alcedo Justin Francis, had a hand in it too. They grabbed up the 11.5-acre property on a Mandahl hillside as soon as it became available in 2003, the same year Francis started the Environmental Rangers. It was an opportunity they had dreamed of for years.
Francis welcomes one to her Garden of Eden in the rough with a brief wave, as she returns to tending a termite nest fire. Satisfied it's going well, she begins a trek of the campsite.
Francis is never still. Bending over to uproot a clump of love weed, the yellow peril of gardeners, she says, "Actually, it can be used in healing." A nearby sign reads: "God gave us dominion over the earth and it creatures. Let us protect and preserve our natural resources."
She says, "I want to give to the youngsters what I had naturally growing up. I'm a country girl at heart. I want them to have the same experiences."
Francis has taught science at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School for the past 21 years, teaching her students how to be stewards of the environment, introducing them to marine biologists, environmentalists and other experts in the field.
Between her mother, career government nutritionist Julia Wallace, and father, Viggo Wallace, long-time preservationist and government director of physical education, Francis was surrounded by nature and nurture almost from the cradle.
"For as long as I can remember we were outside, always at the beach, Lindquist, Tutu Bay, Magens," Francis says. "My father loved the islands, the sea, the trees, the plants, the creatures. And he loved people."
She laughs, "Almost any time we went to the beach, he would meet tourists, and feel obliged to take them on an island tour. And my sister and I got to learn the island that way, too.
"We learned about growing fruits and vegetables, what was good for us to put in our bodies, from my mother," Francis says. "When she traveled to the other islands, my sister and I would get to go along and learn," she says. "And people would invite us to their homes for meals."
When the Rangers began clearing the property for Camp Umoja in 2003, the bush was dense, according to Michael, Francis' 17-year-old son, a Charlotte Amalie High School senior. "We had to cut through with machetes and sticks," he says. "It was lots of work. Still is."
"Umoja" stands for unity, the group's motto: "Unity with nature promotes unity among men." The youngsters are at the camp almost every weekend, terracing the hillside, planting, cooking healthy meals over a campfire.
As we roam the hillside, a backhoe is noisily clearing a road. "The road won't be straight," Francis says, "because I want these trees where they are." All manner of trees abound at the camp — red berry, yucca, tiger palms, inkberry trees, banana plants, papayas, mangoes.
We sit at a vantage point overlooking the mangrove lagoon, when Francis suddenly excuses herself, pulling on her orange work gloves. "Have to put water on the fire," she says, bounding as sure-footed as a mountain goat to the smoldering termite fire.
Returning, she points out some new flora when she climbs back up. "Try this," she says, offering a tiny okra which is tart and juicy. "They just burst out, look at their yellow flowers — beautiful."
Francis smiles easily, a comfortable and welcoming presence. "We are so blessed to have this," she says gazing at the hillside with a mother's love.
The Rangers were a natural outgrowth of the Reef Rangers pilot program run by Paula Morgan, Francis says. "After she left, we started, but we study more than the reefs," she says. "It's the entire ecosystem."
The Rangers were the only presenters to get a standing ovation at the Coral World Task Force symposium here in 2006. Francis was recognized as "one of the great fixtures of marine environmental awareness on St. Thomas."
She graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tn. with a bachelor of science degree, and holds a master's degree in education from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Meantime, she and her husband are raising a family of four boys, the oldest of whom, 25-year-old Soundjapa is in graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D. C. The other three attend school here — Michael, Jawanza are in high school and the youngest, Osayande, 8, is in elementary school.
Francis' cell phone rings. It's Michael. "Remember to take Osayande to the ballfield," she instructs. "They love nature," she says, "and they love baseball."
To join the Rangers or volunteer time, call Francis at 775-7742.
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