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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
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Not for Profit: Vento Trust

Gail and Lana VentoHard as it is to maneuver through the maze of tests, forms, applications and deadlines to get into college, it can be even more intimidating adjusting to life on a sprawling college campus, away from home for the first time, and all the while worrying about grades and finances.

It helps if you know someone who’s been through it before you. But what if you are contemplating applying to college and no one in your family has ever gone?

Starting this year, there will be extra help for just such pioneers.

Working through the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, the Lana Vento Charitable Trust will launch a pilot program in August aimed at supplementing and expanding the services currently available to public high school students. An experienced educator based at CFVI’s new Family Connection center in Tutu Park Mall will mentor students wanting help applying for college and preparing for it. Assistance is expected to cover everything from coaching for writing application essays to providing information about available scholarships to practical advice on how to open a bank account.

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“(High school) Guidance counselors spend a lot of their time dealing with life issues” and sometimes have little time left for steering college-bound youth. “We want to fill a niche that’s not filled,” said Gail Vento, director of the Trust.

The program is just the latest in a very long list of projects the Lana Vento Charitable Trust has funded in the past 12 years, and many of them have been in the Virgin Islands. Lana and daughter Gail spoke recently with the Source about the Trust’s mission and history.

Its primary focus has been and remains eye cancer research. Years ago Lana Vento had a severe melanoma and credits prominent ophthalmologist and researcher Dr. Devron Char with curing it and saving her eye. The family has supported medical research ever since. So far, the work has been primarily curative. “Hopefully one day it’ll turn into preventive medicine,” Lana Vento said.

Other major areas of funding include marine research, education, the arts and museums and ecological ventures, the women said.

Richard and Lana Vento moved to St. Thomas with their three daughters in 2001, originally to take advantage of Economic Development Commission tax breaks for their two businesses. But as things turned out, Gail Vento said, neither business ever used the EDC benefits. Meanwhile, however, the Ventos came to like living in the Virgin Islands, and they have been here ever since.

Besides the U.S. Virgin Islands, regions benefitting from the Trust include northern Lake Tahoe and, to a lesser degree, Hawaii, she said.

In the territory, the University of the Virgin Islands has benefitted significantly from the trust, especially in its marine sciences division, where the trust helped to establish a master’s degree program and has funded various research projects.

Researchers from some of the country’s biggest marine institutes come to UVI to study reefs in local waters, Lana Vento said. Through UVI, researchers have discovered reefs below 200 feet that are very healthy. “It turns out it’s a very important spawning ground.”

The department is particularly impressive because “they’re really working with minimal resources, and doing a lot with them,” Gail Vento said. As an example, she said, “they’re using blue kiddie pools and growing lobsters” in them.

The Ventos are also excited about productions and youth programs at Pistarckle Theater, which they have supported for some time. And they have partnered with The Forum to sponsor school visits by the international artists, lecturers and performers that the Forum brings to V.I. audiences.

Smaller Vento Trust initiatives in the Virgin Islands include skateboard contests, baseball tournaments, sailing programs, a chess club, summer camps, the VI Environmental Research Station and more.

The trust doesn’t generally entertain grant requests. Rather, the Ventos approach people already engaged in programs that they feel are important.

“It’s always for a specific purpose,” Lana Vento said. “We want to see results.”

“We try to help our grantees get to their mission,” said Gail Vento. “We don’t tell them how to do it. We don’t run programs.” She said she likes working in a small community. “It’s easy to get to know your grantees. You see them in the grocery store.”

“We’re not the Gates,” Lana Vento said, referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the biggest in the world. But the trust is doing its part, and so are others. “There are a lot of people here doing a lot of good,” she said.

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