Daily News: Friends of VINP looks ahead to next 30 years

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By ANDREA MILAM St. John Correspondent

09.26.19

With their 30th anniversary celebrations behind them, the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park is looking ahead to the next 30 years, the nonprofit’s president Todd Sampsell told a group of residents at a Rotary Club of St. John meeting on Sept. 18. The organization marked 30 years in operation and the departure of its longtime president, Joe Kessler, at the end of 2018. The Friends has chosen a theme of “rediscovering our gifts” in 2019, Sampsell explained.

“The essence of who we are and what we do doesn’t change, but we’re entering a phase now where we need to think about resiliency, and redefining what is special about the VINP and our resources here,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re connecting more and more with St. Thomas, because we do have park amenities over there and we want to think about how to better utilize and connect people to that part of the park.”

The Friends works in tandem with the V.I. National Park to protect and preserve the park’s natural and cultural resources by supporting research, interpretation and preservation of those resources, as well as connecting visitors and residents to the park through education, volunteerism and advocacy.

“The thing I’m most excited about is connecting visitors to the park and the park to the community,” said Sampsell. “Education is one of the ways we connect people, and that connection is so important. We start young.

”To that end, said Sampsell, the Friends has long supported the VINP’s Learn to Swim program, which offers swimming lessons to children in summer camp programs. The Friends is looking to expand the swimming program into a year-round offering.

Sampsell also spoke on improving relations between the park and island residents, some of whom continue to be vocal about their opposition to tactics used during the park’s formation, including the federal government’s attempt to condemn St. John land for the park, and about the way the park affects various facets of life for St. John residents today.

“We recognize that St. John is made up of a diversity of various heritages, thoughts and lifestyles and we want to make sure our organization represents that,” said Sampsell. “I know that sounds funny coming from a white guy from the U.S. and I recognize that and I embrace that. I encourage us to always be thinking about how we can pull in various parts of the community that feel they haven’t always been embraced by the park and the Friends. We recognize the challenges created by a park that takes up two-thirds of this island. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to help this community rise to those challenges.”

Sampsell touted several of the Friends’ successes, including helping the park become an anchorless park with the installation of mooring balls in numerous bays, continuing to connect with local children despite the loss of the V.I. Environmental Resource Station during Hurricane Irma, and maintaining all 27 miles of hiking trails within the park.

The Friends works with an advisory council made up of business owners and residents who are interested in being more engaged, said Sampsell, who invited interested parties to join the council.

“We really look to that group to help advise our board, which is setting the direction and governance of the organization,” said the Friends president. “I welcome input from everyone. Just come and talk to me. I’m happy to buy coffee or lunch if you want to talk.”

Friends by the numbers

500 — number of volunteers per year who have donated their time to the Friends since the organization’s founding

300,000 — number of hours donated by those volunteers

$9.6 million — amount the Friends has invested in various projects over the last 30 years

$2.5 million — approximate amount the Friends has invested in cultural preservation, the largest portion of the nonprofit’s expenditures over the last three decades

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