“What’s the most important thing to do today,” Just Play Day organizer Dean Doeling said, as some 225 kids got ready to warm up at Winston Wells Ballfield on St. John.
The answer came back loud and clear.
“Just play,” they shouted.
The kids, about 75 more than had been anticipated, spent the day tossing footballs and basketballs, swatting tennis balls and just having fun.
Kai Copeland, an 11-year-old St. John youth who is home-schooled, said he’s attended Just Play Day every year. He said it’s important to “keep his body running” and gives him something to do on the long Columbus Day/Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands Friendship Day weekend.
“It’s one of the best events of the year,” he said.
Several parents and grandparents said there isn’t much in the way of sports on St. John so Just Play Day gave the youths a chance to get out on the field. St. John resident Pat Harley, on hand with granddaughter Jordyn Powell, 5, said kids need to know that running, jumping and falling down are all part of life.
“Not just staying home and playing video games,” she said.
The youths got to try out the new grass at the Winston Wells Ballfield. Until intervention by Charlie Palminteri, 11, and a band of volunteers, the field was hard-packed dirt that made for a dangerous playing surface. Charlie, his brother Michael, 13, and his mother, Laura Palminteri, were on hand.
She said her veterinary practice donated the sprinkler system, donations raised $1,500 for the fertilizer and maintenance and donated labor did all the hard work that went into grading and planting the field.
“Forty tons of sand was moved by hand,” she said.
Just Play Day runs on volunteers. Maddie Enges, 21, came from North Hollywood, Calif. to help out. She said her father and Doeling were friends so she decided to get involved.
“I love kids,” she said.
Audrey Penn loves kids too, and the perennial St. John volunteer who works in the Ambassadors of the Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, said she misses being on St. John now that she works on St. Thomas.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” she said.
While Doeling said the St. John community always supported the event, help from island residents and businesses has increased over the years. A raffle held Saturday at Cruz Bay’s Beach Bar raised $1,800.
Doeling, a graphic designer from Beaverton, Ore. who works at Nike and visits St. John regularly, said the company donates T-shirts and hats that go into the goodie bag but he still needs to raise funds for trophies, T-shirts and water bottles as well as pay the disc jockey and buy miscellaneous supplies.
Doeling put the value of the event at $60,000 but said that all but $6,000 comes through in-kind donations from sponsors. Items like water and ice are donated by the community, and St. John Catering/Mathayom Private Chefs provides all the food. This year the menu included pasta with meat or vegetarian sauce, grilled chicken breasts, veggies dishes, salad, and “everyone’s favorite garlic bread.”
“I’ve got a kid. I’ve got experience doing events,” owner Mathayom Vacharat said.
According to Doeling, he planned for 150 youths and 75 volunteers because that number was about what participated in each of the previous years. He said although 225 kids showed up Monday, as of Sunday only about 80 registered. Doeling said that at least 30 of the 225 youths came from St. Thomas, far more than in previous years.
About 75 volunteers showed up as anticipated but the swarm of kids made for a bit of scrambling to reorganize the goodie bags to make sure each one went home with a gift. He said Vacharat somehow stretched the food to feed the additional people.
“It was a learning experience for us, but everybody got fed and everybody played,” he said.