Summer Work Programs Connect Youth With Heritage, Natural Environment

By ANDREA MILAM St. John Correspondent , Virgin Islands Daily News, Jul 20, 2023

Ask the members of the two youth crews working in the Virgin Islands National Park this summer why they applied for their respective programs, and you’ll get a wide range of answers.

Some participants joined the VI National Park’s Youth Conservation Corps or the Friends of VI National Park’s Summer Trail Crew to learn more about their ancestry, while others are exploring a potential career in marine biology or learning how to better care for the environment.

Despite their varying motivations for pursuing these summer employment opportunities, all participants in both programs agreed that they would recommend the experience to a friend.

“It’s pretty fun, you get new experiences, and you meet new people who can help you out in the future,” said 16-year-old Jelani Hill of St. John, who’s working with the YCC this summer.

“You get more connections to help you out in life,” agreed 16-year-old Gabriel Elcock of St. Thomas, who’s also working with the YCC.

The National Park Service’s YCC program was created in 1970 with the goal of providing teens with summer employment while introducing them to conservation opportunities in public lands. VINP Chief of Interpretation Ahmad Toure spoke of the YCC’s importance, particularly in a community like St. John where the park’s relationship with native Virgin Islanders has long been a fraught one.

“I want to make sure they have a good understanding of the fact that our National Parks belong to all American citizens,” said Toure. “I want them to understand what that means, and that they take ownership of this place, especially here on St. John where the native Virgin Islanders are being displaced at a rapid rate. A lot of native Virgin Islanders don’t feel welcome in their own spaces, and I think that’s a really critical issue that the park needs to do as much as they can to help turn around. I definitely think the YCC program is a way to help bridge that connection with the youth.”

This summer’s YCC program, which runs from June 20 to August 4, exposes its participants to numerous aspects of the National Park’s operations. Projects have included clearing trails on Hassel Island, clearing debris from Drunk Bay, repairing rotted wood steps leading up to Annaberg, clearing invasive vegetation from around historic ruins, and repainting picnic tables and installing new signage on tables and garbage cans at Trunk Bay. The students’ hard work has been balanced with educational opportunities, including cultural demonstrations by Olivia Christian and Charles Jackson, the cook and gardener, respectively, at Annaberg; learning about marine mammal rescue and NPS-funded coral reef restoration at Coral World; a bird walk with retired park ranger Laurel Brannick; and working with cultural artifacts with the park’s archaeology department. YCC participants have also met with employees in various park divisions including concessions and law enforcement, giving students the opportunity to see various career pathways.

“It’s a really robust program where they get to do some cool activities,” said Toure. “Our hope is that the youth get a better understanding of what the National Park Service’s mission is and how we enact that mission in our work. Interacting with our employees gives the students a different perspective about opportunities that might be available to them in the future, whether with the Park Service or not. My goal is to make sure they have life skills that they can translate into wherever they want to go in the future.”

Although the YCC involves manual labor in the hot summer sun, this year’s participants agreed that they’ve had a lot of fun, pointing to experiences like interacting with sea lions at Coral World, hiking Reef Bay Trail and seeing the petroglyphs, and snorkeling Leinster Bay.

“The supervisors are very accommodating and friendly, and it’s a very good experience,” said 17-year-old Minaya Evans of St. John. “It’s a mixture of work, learning, and fun, and it comes together really well.”

Similar to the YCC, the Friends Summer Trail Crew combines hard work with education and fun. The YCC and Summer Trail Crew groups even overlapped in some of their work, including trail work at Annaberg and Hassel Island. Other projects the Summer Trail Crew has tackled include clearing vegetation from the Cinnamon Bay Plantation ruins and from the Windberg ruins on the one-way road to Maho Bay, and doing trail work at the L’Esperance, Lameshur Bay, and Lind Point trails.

The Friends group has engaged in a wide array of educational experiences, including a guided hike and arts and crafts presentation with Delroy “Ital” Anthony, a presentation by mute frog researcher Pearl Cales, and CPR and first aid training with St. John Rescue. Trail Crew participants eagerly recall and share what they’ve learned through the program. Several of this year’s participants returned this summer for their second year with the Trail Crew.

“Being on the Trail Crew allows us to go around the island and see things and views people don’t normally get to see,” said 16-year-old Kemoi Thomas of St. John, who’s a second-year member of the crew. “We get to see ruins and we learn about how slaves used to live their lives.”

“I never explore the island; I go to school, Cruz Bay, and that’s it,” said Tumayah Bartlette, who’s on the Trail Crew for the first time this summer. “It’s been very surprising. Overall I feel like it’s a nice experience to explore the island and keep our place clean.”

Seventeen-year-old Jack Oram of St. Thomas said he’s enjoyed getting to meet more of his peers through the Summer Trail Crew program.

Perhaps the program’s biggest success story, Aaliyah Hodge is in her sixth year with the Summer Trail Crew. She’s grown from youth participant to a leader in the Summer Trail Crew, and her relationship with the Friends expanded this past season as she took over the full-time trail coordinator position.

“Dealing with the volunteers was cool,” Hodge said of her first year running the volunteer trail crew. “I met a lot of different people from all over and got some great advice too. With the Summer Trail Crew, sometimes it’s tough to get them coordinated but once they’re on it, they’re on it. They are super hard workers.”

Friends Trails Manager Taylor White echoed Hodge’s sentiments.

“I am continuously impressed by this group and their eagerness to learn, dedication, and hard work out on the trails,” said White. “It’s wonderful to see how much the kids who returned for a second year have grown in just one year. They’re like young professionals, getting right to work. The goal of the program is to get young local people motivated and excited about being in the park and learning about its history and vegetation. We hope to be a pipeline for the next generation of environmental stewards, from cradle to college to career.”

Like the YCC, the Summer Trail Crew will conclude August 4.