Nine years ago on October 8th, 2013, a dynamo in a petite frame named Resa O’Reilly signed ownership papers for a derelict building in Christiansted, the main town on St Croix. It became the foundation of a dream, a promise she made to herself, of instigating an holistic, long-term, after-school program for children and so, a few months later, the non-profit Project Promise became incorporated. A program dedicated to giving “at-risk youth the tools and support they need to live healthier lives.” To help youngsters improve their decision-making skills, to manage conflict, to introduce new vocational interests with the ultimate goal of inspiring “excellence and success for youth throughout the Virgin Islands community.”
From those lofty goals and dreams came the Caterpillar Project, an eight-year program that would nurture at-risk children. The criteria for acceptance included students chosen from the 5th Grade with C or D averages, minimal to no behavioral issues and with involved parents. That last condition being pivotal because for the children to thrive, the message given in the program environment must be reinforced in the home.
That first tranche all taken from the Lew Muckle Elementary School have graduated and the second has started. This time students drawn from across different schools, which will create a different dynamic both for the children and those involved in the programming.
Not only are the students given opportunities to learn different life skills, and to learn about their own environment, they are encouraged to expand their outlook both nationally and globally. One program took four of the Caterpillars on a Summer of Service 4,000 mile coast-to-coast trip across mainland America. These youngsters saw iconic landmarks from each state they crossed but they also gave back to some of the communities through which they passed – service being an important component of the program. Another program involved Toys for Tanzania, and Walk for Refugees Awareness. As Ms O’Reilly states, “It’s important for the Caterpillars to know, despite their challenges, they can still make a difference in the lives of others.”
Project Promise initially run out the same school from which the children were drawn then, after the destruction of Hurricane Maria five years ago, from space given by Island Therapy Solutions, will now be housed in the building that prompted that initial dream.
“When I first went into the building,” Resa told me, “it was knee-high in trash, mattresses everywhere. The roof needed replacing, the windows, everything. ”
Through the unstinting efforts of Resa O’Reilly, supported by her family and the board of Project Promise, the building began to take shape. Many local entities have been involved in helping this project come to fruition from major financial contributions, to smaller amounts and practical help. The Humanitarian Experience for Youth, for example, sent 146 volunteers to St Croix over a seven-week period in 2021. Teenage girls and boys became, in the space of a few weeks, adept at wearing a hard hat and wielding a hammer, climbing ladders, installing windows.
Now, nine long years later, the building under the guidance of local architect, William Taylor, is proof that dreams can come true. The rooms are light and airy, painted in varying shades of grey and white. Modern white desks line two of the classrooms – one which will be used to enhance computer skills. The conference / multi-purpose room is equally as spare in its decor but there is a warmth to the entire space generated by the enthusiasm that bubbles from all concerned. The kitchen and bathrooms are streamlined – floating shelves adding a sense of freedom. An enclosed courtyard, lined with just-planted crotons, ferns and small palms will become an outdoor space for snacks and games. Upstairs comfortable sofas and chairs dot the open-plan recreational room that leads to a small balcony.
The Project Promise building has, over the years, had numerous functions – a tavern, a cobbler’s shop, a mason, a wig shop and now a community centre for the young. In a story that has had various twists along the road, Resa has one more to add to the canon. The day before the Caterpillar Project started she found out that Lew Muckle, the Virgin Island native son and senator for whom the elementary school had been named and from which her Caterpillars had been chosen, had once worked in the building on the corner of Queen and King Cross Streets.
Through her determination and belief that obstacles are actually hidden opportunities, the once derelict building opened officially on Saturday, October 8th, 2022, nine years to the day since Resa O’Reilly found her life’s purpose.
As we watched attendees being guided through the building by one of the Caterpillars I asked her, “So, Resa, what’s next?”
“Oh my gosh,” the woman in an elegant crimson dress replied, “we’ve got to keep raising funds. It’s hard to keep the impetus going in the publics mind. There’s a sort of attitude amongst some that ‘well you’ve got the building what more do you want?’
“So the fundraiser treadmill continues?”
“Always,” she replied. “We can’t offer programs for these children without having financial backing.”
I am amazed at Resa’s resilience, her limitless enthusiasm, her dedication to the belief that an holistic approach is the most advantageous way to guide children to become strong, community-minded young people.
But it takes not just time but funds. Please consider donating to the future of St Croix.