Everyone in the territory is invited to St. John on Saturday for an old-time fish fry to help the island celebrate the 30th anniversary of the St. John Community Foundation.
Admission is free, and food and drinks will be available for purchase.
The event will be held at the large, outdoor meeting space owned by board member Ronnie Jones in Susannaberg. To avoid congestion at the Centerline Road location, shuttles will depart from the ferry dock in Cruz Bay, and an extra late night ferry will be added to the schedule to get St. Thomas residents back home.
The fun begins around 3 p.m. with activities for children including face painting, a bouncy house and a performance by the Love City Pan Dragons. As the day goes on, local cooks will serve up fried fish, chicken legs and Johnny Cakes. Two well-known St. John DJs, Adonis and Ian Samuel, will keep the music flowing between live performances by local musicians, including saxophonist Broheem and Cool Sessions.
The guest of honor is Jim St. John, a founding member of the organization, who is flying in for the occasion. St. John was the general manager of the Virgin Grand Hotel 30 years ago, when Hurricane Hugo slammed into the Virgin Islands.
“Jim St. John is the one who brought everyone together,” said Lonnie Willis, who has served as a board member of the STJ Community Foundation for decades. “He took in everybody when people lost their homes. He went out of his way to help the community.”
In 1989, the recently built Virgin Grand Hotel – now the Westin Resort – stood up well to the ravages of Hurricane Hugo. The hotel opened its doors to the community on St. John, inviting the Red Cross to serve food from its kitchen and providing a place for community members to organize the island’s recovery.
The Myrah Keating Smith Clinic, the island’s main medical facility, lost its roof in the storm, and the former general manager allowed the clinic staff to move in to the hotel for several months. Elaine Estern, who worked as an emergency medical technician at the time, recalled camping out in the space provided by the hotel and assisting Dr. Elizabeth Barot as she delivered a baby.
Several months after Hurricane Hugo, community members met to discuss how to get the word out that the island was ready to start welcoming tourists again.
“Jim St. John wanted to get all the accommodations people together, like on St. Croix,” said Willis during an interview in the early 1990s about the development of the STJ Community.
“We wanted to let friends and travel agencies know that rooms for rent are available, and it’s an excellent place to come, despite the hurricane,” said business owner Radha Speer around the same time.
That led to the formation of the St. John Accommodations Council, whose goal was to promote St. John as a unique destination. However, when community members came together to talk about specific initiatives, it became clear people were more concerned about other problems facing the community, said Willis.
To address these concerns, community members decided to also establish the St. John Community Foundation. It was funded at first by the STJ Accommodations Council’s newly created Tourist Awareness Program, which asked hotel guests staying on St. John to donate a dollar per night to help fund a range of community initiatives.
The minutes of a Nov. 20, 1991, general meeting of the STJ Community Foundation indicates the types of activities supported by the organization: funding concerts by Steel Unlimited, the island’s youth steel band; publishing a St. John Destination Guide to promote the island’s unique offerings; setting up a Children’s Fair at Carnival Village; distributing shopping bags to cut down on the use of plastic bags; advising the Department of Planning and Natural Resources on a territorywide Comprehensive Land Use Plan; working with the Virgin Islands Port Authority to design a barge terminal at Enighed Pond; constructing a gazebo in Cruz Bay Park; and lobbying for more police officers, equipment and a new zone command building in Cruz Bay.
“A lot of government agencies were not living up to expectations, at least in terms of St. John,” said Harry Daniel, after he became president of the STJ Community Foundation in 1991. “We formed the organization to get St. Johnians [involved] and to make people aware that unless we make a lot of noise, things will go unattended.”
The results of their efforts can be seen today. The police station, gazebo, barge facility are all proof of progress. Activities for youth, environmental sustainability and long range planning continue to be issues that the STJ Community Foundation works to promote.
“The energy of the foundation relies on volunteers. People who are willing to squeeze a few extra hours out of their busy lives to contribute to the community well-being,” Daniel wrote in a guest editorial published by The Daily News in November 1991. “We were not founded to promote business interests or be an exclusive segment of the community. We believe we can hold public forums to discuss infrastructural and social problems and thus encourage our citizens to become proactive.”
The vision that Daniel put forth in that editorial still stands, but the organization has grown. “We still emphasize building unity,” said Celia Kalousek, who began as a volunteer and has served as executive director since 2011. The foundation now has a staff of nine to support programs, provide services and engage the community.
The STJ Community Foundation has continued to serve the community in multiple ways – by supporting youth programs, hosting political forums, facilitating anticrime initiatives, providing services for the most vulnerable members of the community and serving as an umbrella organization for community groups who do not have nonprofit status.
It has partnered with the St. John Angel Network to match nonprofit organizations with donors who can provide volunteers, expertise and funding. It works with Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster to coordinate efforts of organizations such as the Red Cross and All Hands and Hearts.
For 30 years, the foundation has found ways to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors. Since 1992, the STJ Community Foundation has sponsored the St. John Dial-a-Ride program. Driver Dean Thomas has been known to deliver home cooked food to clients in need. The foundation has worked with health partners to find ways to make Cruz Bay safer for pedestrians by promoting “walkability.” It has helped fund local art organizations to engage hundreds of community members in “Masks in the Aftermath,” a public art program to promote healing after Hurricane Irma.
From an organization that began on voluntary donations of a dollar a night, it has grown to become the conduit for major private and government funding. In September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, announced it had awarded the St. John Community Foundation $7 million to retrofit homes on the island against hurricane-force wind, debris, rain and other related hazards.
At a Sunday morning meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John, Kalousek spoke of joining forces with the V.I. Food Coalition.
“If delivery stopped, we’d be out of food on the island in two weeks,” she said.
She asked fellowship members what activities they might want to become involved with – Seed banks? Seedling propagation? Backyard gardening? U.U. members seemed ready to be recruited. If there’s anything the STJ Community Foundation does know how to do, it is to take a good idea and make it grow.