New Friends of V.I. National Park board chairman hopes to bring more community connection

By ANDREA MILAM St. John Correspondent / Virgin Islands Daily News

Growing up on St. John, the Virgin Islands National Park was intertwined in many of Audrey Penn’s childhood experiences. As an adult, she went on to ensure that hundreds of schoolchildren have similar opportunities to connect with their park by developing the Friends of V.I. National Park’s School Kids in the Park Program (SKIP).

During Penn’s 2008-2013 tenure as program director for the Friends, she and now-retired National Park Ranger Laurel Brannick launched the SKIP program, which encourages educators to utilize the park as a living classroom, facilitates visits to the park, and works to remove barriers that may limit students’ participation by covering transportation costs.

Ten years after she left the program director role, Penn has entered into a different relationship with the Friends as chairman of the nonprofit’s board of directors.

With experience as a Friends summer intern and the five-year program director stint under her belt, Penn brings a depth to the chairman role that the organization has not previously experienced.

As the youngest member of the board of directors, she hopes to help the nonprofit better connect with the community that played such a pivotal role in shaping Penn into who she is today.

Penn’s connections to her community run deep. She recalled spending time as a child with Andy Rutnik — her predecessor as Friends board chairman — when her mother, Elaine Penn, worked for him.

She attended what is now the Gifft Hill School from first through sixth grade and graduated as her sixth grade class valedictorian before transferring to Antilles, which she attended through her graduation in 2002. Penn was active in the sport of tennis, which took her to Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and St. Thomas for tournaments, and she also played basketball and steel pan.

Her working life began at age 13, when she was hired at the former Marina Market. She rose to the role of head cashier at Starfish Market then went on to work at Courtesy Car Rental, which she managed during summers when owners Greg and Josephine Edwards traveled off-island.

“That’s where I learned to be the best at driving in reverse, from Greg Edwards,” Penn said with a laugh. “They trusted in me leaving me the entire company while they were away.”

Penn won a scholarship to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where she earned a degree in anthropology with minors in African studies and linguistics. She came home during the summers to work with her mom and to pitch in at Courtesy Car Rental. After four years at Rollins, including a semester abroad in Australia, Penn graduated and returned home for good in 2006.

With a goal of working for the V.I. National Park, Penn took a job that she thought would help get her foot in the door — summer intern with the Friends. When the internship ended, Penn worked at the Concordia Eco Resort as site manager during development of the resort’s store and pavilion. From there, she took on the program manager position with the Friends in 2008.

In addition to founding the SKIP program, Penn greatly expanded the seminar series, which connects residents and visitors alike with local culture bearers, and nature and history experts for activities like bird watching or bush medicine seminars.

“The seminar series just exploded,” said Penn. “I added a steel pan seminar which brought a touch of myself into the program.”

In 2013, Penn made the difficult choice to leave the Friends to pursue a role that seemed tailor-made for her — helping to launch The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas’s Ritz Kids programming in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

“It was everything I wanted — a management position in a luxury hotel working with kids,” she said. “Who can say they worked with Jacques Cousteau’s son? We were doing night kayaking and snorkeling and did a lot of nature walks around the property.”

She kept her foot in the door with the Friends by serving on the organization’s advisory council, and as she transitioned from working at the Ritz to working for Cruz Bay Watersports, where she still works today, Penn joined the Friends board of directors in 2016.

Penn said she was amazed that the board unanimously chose her as its new chairman, and after spending a few weeks thinking it over and talking over the new role with her mom, she agreed to take the position. She said she recognizes her acceptance of the chairman role coincides with some of the biggest decisions the park is facing.

“Caneel and the land swap are our biggest challenges,” said Penn. “We can’t make final decisions but Friends is the philanthropic partner to the park. We need to keep the community in mind and involved in the decisions that will be made.”

Penn said she hopes to leverage the community connections that were such an important part of her childhood to encourage more feedback from the community.

“I can be a sounding board for our local community who might not be comfortable reaching out to others,” she said. “I want to be available to get input, insight, and ideas. It’s important to me to listen to people’s opinions and to share what the Friends is doing. I also want to get more of my generation involved. I’m available for questions and I’m here to learn, but also to expand the community’s knowledge of what the Friends does and what we can do better. I want to make my community proud while making sure I uphold what the board has requested of me.”

Friends Executive Director Tonia Lovejoy gave a nod to Rutnik, who saw the Friends board through the 2017 hurricanes and the global pandemic, and who remains a member of the board. Lovejoy spoke of Penn’s long-time relationship with the Friends.

“She really made her mark as a program manager, and I think she is an incredible leader,” said Lovejoy. “I’m excited for the lens that she brings, which I think will allow the Friends to make next-generation impacts and to see things from a different perspective that is fitting for the times.”