Home News Local news Not for Profit: Friends of the Park

Not for Profit: Friends of the Park

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Nov. 17, 2006 — While V.I. National Park celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 1, its Friends of the Park group came later to the park scene, working to stop beach erosion, protect coral reefs and provide educational opportunities for young people.
The organization got its start back in the late 1980s when winter snowbirds gathered to play bridge. They soon began to hold an annual meeting in January, the peak snowbird season, to discuss issues and socialize.
The annual meeting, held at Tree Lizard Restaurant at Cinnamon Bay Campground, is still strong on socialization, but the Friends group has come a long way since those early days.
In 1988 the Friends group incorporated as a non-profit organization, but the organization still attracted mainly snowbirds and visitors who signed up while visiting the park.
By 1995, the group had hired its first employee, an executive assistant named Sue Ellen Rubin. It had a budget of $33,000 and offered a modest number of activities in its annual winter seminar series. A 1995 report indicated the organization had 300 members drawn from the ranks of local residents and visitors.
Today the Friends has about 3000 members from the territory, all 50 states and 10 countries. The annual budget is about $790,000, with about $140,000 going toward operations. It has a full-time staff of three and a part-time staff of one.
When John Garrison came on board at the end of 1995 as volunteer president, the organization really took off.
"We got traction and things started to grow," says Garrison, who now works for the Trust for Public Land in Florida.
Garrison didn't draw a salary for the entire first year on the job.
In August of 1995, the organization rented office space at Mongoose Junction, which it still occupies.
A big boost came with the 1997 donation of 2.8 acres of land at Mandela Circle on St. Thomas, Garrison said. The Friends group sold it in 1999 for $2 million to create an endowment.
"That was a major milestone," Garrison says.
The organization soon hired staff, with Becky Bremser the first employee. She now works with Garrison at the Trust for Public Land. Joe Kessler replaced Garrison in 2001 as president. John Fuller heads the 13-member board of directors.
The organization's greatest accomplishments include providing initial funding for the park's archeology program about eight years ago, Fuller says.
"The beach was eroding and the nearest park archaeologist was in Puerto Rico," he says.
The erosion problem threatened a beachfront Taino Indian site. With the Friends funding, National Park Service archaeologist Ken Wild arrived from Puerto Rico to begin work.
The park eventually found funding for his position, but Fuller says the Friends continue to pay for an internship program that provides assistance for Wild. The archeology projects now cover various land and underwater locations within the park. The Friends also funded 215 moorings in park waters, Fuller says.
"This has made a major difference in the protection of coral and seagrass beds," he says.
The Friends have worked to promote the acquisition of privately owned holdings within the park boundaries. The latest effort came to fruition when the Trust for Public Land signed contracts in September on 415 acres of Marsh family land at Maho Bay.
"The Friends raised the flag and got the attention of the park service," Fuller says. Members wrote letters, sent emails and faxed officials to convince them to protect the area from development, he says.
The group has also worked to help young people, funding student eco-camps at the V.I. Environmental Resource Station and helping to raise environmental awareness.
Locals have learned more about the cultural, spiritual and economic importance of the park to St. John thanks to Friends activities, Fuller says.
Goals include increasing membership to 3500, developing a donor base to sustain growth and fully funding park requests and scholarship programs. Volunteers are the mainstay of the organization, with 214 volunteers contributing 2002 hours during the 2006 fiscal year.
They do a variety of jobs that range from serving as docents at Annaberg Plantation to working the front desk at the park's Visitor's Center, says Friends Program Manager Kristin Maize. Volunteers also serve as instructors in the Friend's annual seminar series, and help with events like Earth Day and the annual Beach-to-Beach Power Swim.
"And volunteers come down from the States and do different projects," Maize says.
Reach the Friends at 779-4940 or visit them online.
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