Home News Local news Not for Profit: Environmental Rangers

Not for Profit: Environmental Rangers


Feb. 18, 2007 — The more than 200 scientists and researchers at last year's U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Symposium sat up and took notice at a presentation by a bunch of teenagers and preteens.
The Environmental Rangers were the only presenters to get a standing ovation at the Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Resort event. The youngsters are anything but an ordinary group.
"They are always at work on a project, or more than one," says Leba Ola-Niyi, one of the group's advisors.
In the four years since the Environmental Rangers began, it has made an impact in the territory, with the students learning themselves and teaching others along the way. Based at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, its mission is to educate other young people about the territory's fragile marine and land environments, as well as how to preserve and protect our natural ecosystems and cultural heritage.
The group also welcomes students from other schools, including Charlotte Amalie High School, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Calvary Christian Academy, Joseph Sibilly Elementary School and Antilles School.
Under the careful mentoring of Anna Francis, a 20-year science teacher, and Ola-Niyi, a 26-year art and history teacher, the students learn about the islands' environment, history and culture. Francis and Ola-Niyi complement each other in their special knowledge and skills.
One recent Friday, Ola-Niyi pointed out the artwork adorning the walls of the classroom where the group meets every Friday after regular classes. "These are posters the students did last year for Black History Month," he says. The projects take many directions, often taking the Rangers far from the classroom.
Last fall, they had a food booth at the University of the Virgin Islands' Agriculture fair, as well as a selection of plants from their nursery and displays of ways to care for the planet.
They served up a healthy menu, featuring baked broccoli and ginger barbecue tofu, along with fresh carrot juice for $2 a cup, a real bargain.
The group's natural home is Camp Umoja at Mandahl Bay, an eco-campground that they use and care for, and where they grow things — including the produce for the Ag fair.
"And we have tortoises, too," say seventh-grader Nicole Fis. "We feed them — there's lots of them."
During the summer the Rangers participate in a four-to six-week project at the camp. "Umoja" stands for unity, the group's motto: "Unity with nature promotes unity among men." Last year the Rangers transplanted some of the trees grown at the camp to the grounds of the Lutheran Yellow Cedar home.
Francis is a dedicated teacher. Though she takes obvious pride in her students, she presides with an eye toward discipline as the students become a bit overenthusiastic in their efforts to tell about all that they do.
"Okay," she instructs the students, "Now, let's calm down and talk about what we do calmly."
The students do a lot. They frequently travel off island for research projects. They have attended recycling workshops at Maho Bay on St. John and to St. Croix for a visit on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ship, Nancy Foster, for a closeup look at sea-floor mapping and identifications of type of organisms on the coral reefs.
Their main focus, however, is at home, where they do hands-on work. They regularly participate in beach cleanups, whether it's V.I. Coast Week or not. Last year they cleaned beaches at Neltjeberg, Tutu Bay, Dorothea, Great Bay and Brewers Bay.
"We even found an old boat buried at Brewers Bay," James says. "It's a lot of work, but afterwards we get to swim, kayak, and have picnics. Then it's really fun."
Francis, in fact, received an award from the Coral Reef Task Force symposium for developing the hands-on program.
As the other students work on a non-point pollution program for next month, James and Michael Hillaire, a 16-year-old CAHS junior, get out a laptop and show the presentation that won them praise last year at the scientists' gathering, "Students Making a Difference for the Health of the Reefs in the Virgin Islands."
The sophisticated presentation is accompanied by photos taken by the group over the past few years; it is a very professional presentation. It starts: "God gave us dominion over the earth and its creatures. It is our job to protect and preserve them."
The 43-page presentation illustrates the problems facing the territory's reefs and beaches caused by pollution and carelessness. And it illustrates the Rangers' activities to help protect them.
"The coral reef is our sanctuary," James says. "It is part of our heritage. It is an important part of the ecosystem."
The presentation illustrates how ecosystems work together, showing pictures of the St. Thomas Mangrove Lagoon, an area of special interest to the group. "The reefs protect the mangroves from rough waves, and the mangroves protect the reefs from sedimentary runoff," Hillaire says.
The group puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to protecting endangered beaches. At the Legislature in 2005, it joined in a protest led by the Red Hook Community Alliance and the Northside Civic Organization against the sale of Vessup Bay beach to private investors.
And the group pays attention to community members active in environmental protection. On Earth Day 2005, it honored longtime environmental activist Helen Gjessing for her 30 years of teaching about the environment at UVI, along with Red Hook Community Alliance President Andrea King for her efforts to protect Vessup Bay. (The issue remains unresolved.)
Recognizing local culture, the group holds yearly Martin Luther King Day lectures, Kwanzaa celebrations, a St. John walk to commemorate the 1733 slave revolt and a Black History Month dinner.
The program is supported from an energy grant, as well as local and federal grants.
The Rangers have a unique way of celebrating Valentine's Day. No chocolates and roses — the day honors plants, animals, fish, and the natural environment. They call it "Love Your Earth Day," in the schools, and they have an annual Earth Day fair with exhibits in Cancryn's library.
Speaking from Camp Umoja on Saturday, Francis said the students were busy setting up tents for an outdoor weekend. She was dismissive about the honor given her by the Coral Reef Task Force last year, which she had not mentioned in an earlier interview: "Oh, that's nice, but it's really for the kids."
The group is busy now preparing projects for March, which is non-point source pollution month. In an effort close to home, Chinelo Pickering, a Cancryn eighth-grader with an adult's skill, has lettered signs with cartoon characters that will direct students' attention to keeping nearby drains clean.
"This drain leads to the sea/reef," the signs will caution. The signs will go on a fence outside the school, Francis says. The Rangers will make a presentation at a school assembly on non-point source pollution next month.
The group numbers about 12 full-time students now, Francis says. They include the youngest, Ola-Niyi's sons Daudi and Akintunde, who are in the fifth and sixth grade at Calvary Christian Academy, and Francis' two sons Michael and Jawanza Hillaire, CAHS students.
To join the Environmental Rangers or volunteer time, call Francis at 775-7742.
"We're always happy for volunteers, any age," she says.
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