Archives For St Croix USVI

Caterpillar Promise

October 10, 2022 — 2 Comments

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.”

Then

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. ”

Now

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.
http://www.projectpromisevi.com/donate

The Harmony of Life

October 3, 2022 — 7 Comments

“Mum, no more churches.” My son’s words came back to me yesterday as I waited for Jazz Vespers to start in a church perched atop a hill, open to the trade winds – when there are any. It is the St Croix Reformed Church and, because of COVID, the monthly event has not taken place for a couple of years.
I am not a regular church goer but I love churches.

When living in Scotland and after long, dark and dank winters I craved sunshine, so Italy became our chosen summer escape. And, apart from mouth-watering food and the nectar of the gods, the architecture of Italian churches, not to mention the statuary and art work, is sublime. An education in itself. But there is a limit to how many times an eight-year-old can be hauled around churches in every town or village passed through. And for his mother. The glory, the candles and rites can become overwhelming.

That same child, let’s call him Edward, went to a nursery school in Singapore affiliated with St George’s Church, originally built for the British garrison in the 1860s. The current church, completed in 1910, has the ability to transform from day to night. By day bulbuls and golden orioles flit amongst hibiscus planted outside, or swoop in to sit upon the gables of the pitched roof. The sturdy brick, barn-like structure is open to the elements on both sides of the nave, which leads to a modest altar below three stained-glass windows. By night the jungle chorale of crickets and frogs join the congregation in song, and the church becomes a beacon in the dark.

It is the simplicity I have always loved. There is no pretension.

Going back even further in my memory is the chapel at my boarding school, NEGS, in Armidale, Australia. The Florence Green Memorial Chapel, named for the founder of the school, is also a simple design – cruciform – and built of Armidale ‘blue’ brick. One transept houses the organ and choir, the other, junior members of the school under the stern eye of the incumbent headmistress.
Despite despising the regulatory uniform of ‘sacks’ (the name given our white Sunday best) and stockings, even at the tender age of ten I could appreciate the calm beauty of the silky oak interior and pews. At morning services the sun would stream through the transept stained-glass window to cast a blue haze over girls in the front pews.

The chaplain I remember best was the Reverend Alan Gordon – a man intent on engaging a chapel full of reluctant girls by any means possible. It was he who implemented a student folk group – a Kumbaya-kind of service conducted by senior students as we sang songs like Blowing in the Wind or, even more radical for rural Australia, House of the Rising Sun, accompanied by guitars.

Majesty without pretension.

Last night, in the church on the hill the sound of Eddie Russell and his jazz musicians brought back memories of other churches that sang to me. So too the realization that it is not the scriptures but the spirituality of the building and the music that speaks to me.

Eddie, invariably wearing black, is a well-known musician on St Croix and is the band leader. He plays a mean keyboard and flugelhorn, and keeps tight control of the group even if sometimes there is confusion as to what is to be played next. I closed my eyes during his solo of Simba Negro, taken to Argentina on the notes from a flugelhorn.

Ronnie, his brother and one-time lawyer and senator, loses himself as he rocks to the sounds coming from his agile fingers running up and down the frets of his red guitar. The bass guitarist, Mario Thomas strums the rhythm whilst sitting on an amp – his chords reach the depth of my soul as he plays a solo in Chromosome. He’s a cool dude whose face every now and then breaks into a broad grin. The quartet is complete when Ken ‘Afra’ Dailey settles behind the drums, testing different sticks before hitting the cymbals and controlling the beat that send talismans swaying around his neck. He is a hat-maker by trade and last night he wore a kind of paperboy cap on top of his long greying dreads.

I thought of Edward, of churches around the world, as the jazz soul of the Caribbean, accompanied by cricket song, enveloped me in a church filled, not just with the devout, but with people like me, open to the architecture, to the music, to the harmony of life.

How Does My Garden Grow?

February 8, 2021 — 15 Comments

My mother’s gardens around the world bloomed in abundance. The five-acre garden in the centre of Kuala Lumper, where the Twin Towers now loom over the city, is the one I remember best. Huge rain trees under one of which a King Cobra could often be found, much to human and canine consternation. A mangosteen grove, home to all manner of frightening things that I knew must lurk behind coarse trunks and amongst decaying leaves and fruit on the ground, led to the perimeter fence where I rarely ventured. But oh, the fruit, juice dripping from the plump, white flesh hidden deep beneath a thick purple skin, was heavenly and worth the risk of who knows what. And row upon row upon of my mother’s pride – orchids – purple vandas, striped yellow tigers, whites and pinks. Red hibiscus – bunga ray – the national flower of Malaysia, and canna, boisterous in their yellow and orange and red finery but also home to snakes who relished the damp ground. And frangipanis. 

Mum had two and half gardeners to help her. One permanently pushed a mower, one helped with the garden itself and the half came in each afternoon to help tend the hundreds of pot plants. I showed no interest in the mechanics of gardening but loved the beauty.

My foray into horticulture did not take place until, as an adult, I was again in the tropics. We lived in Bangkok, on Soi Attawimon. The garden was an expanse of grass which bordered one edge of a fishpond. An ornate wat, high on a pedestal placed in the corner was, morning and night, adorned with joss sticks and offerings to the temple gods by Es, our house girl. Cannas and crotons rimmed the house. 

Frangipani trees have always been a favourite, perhaps because their many-forked branches invited climbing, despite my irate mother shouting at me to get down. I don’t think Mum was concerned about a broken arm or leg, rather more the imminent snapping of her tree. Whatever the reason, I like both the delicacy of the flowers, whether white, pink, or yellow, and their fragrance.

And so I decided to plant a frangipani. Bangkok used to be known as the Venice of the East. Klongs, canals, threaded their way through the city before many were filled in and tarred over. The knock-on effect, apart from dreadful traffic jams, was a severe flooding problem. Each tropical deluge merged our pond with the garden, snakes and koi, swimming freely. The upshot of this flooding was a dense red clay below the topsoil. Heavy digging.

The Chatuchak weekend market provided the tree, about three foot tall. I can’t remember why I didn’t wait for the man who mowed the lawn to dig the hole. Most likely my normal impatience. Whatever the reason, I regretted it. 

“Madam?” Es, her voice hesitant, looked at me from the shade of the veranda, concern etched across her smooth face. “Madam, not good.”

I glanced up. “What?”

“Not good.” 

Es had a green thumb for herbs, and I expected a horticultural lesson.

“Cannot plant.”

I looked at the hole, painstakingly dug. “Why not?”

“Tree for wat, not house.” Her tone was adamant.

“Why?” I asked, sweat dripped from my face to my drenched tee shirt.

“Call lân tom. Sad flower. By wat,” she repeated.

I looked at her gentle face and all arguments fled. Who was I to ignore a cultural taboo?

I waited until the mower man came and he dug the next hole. By Es’ wat.

Thereafter, in various countries around the world, I have asked before digging. Each time we have moved on, I have been sad to leave my garden and I wonder how my gardens grow.

Thirty-five years later, on an island in the Caribbean, I have a garden I’m not leaving.

From a tan-tan and coralita jungle over which two coconut palms presided, emerged a quarry of  rotten rock, glass and Chaney, the shards of crockery from bygone eras. From that has come, with a lot of sweat, some blood but no tears, a garden that offers respite, calm and abundant pleasure.

Loathe to remove the palms, sanctuary to wasps, bananaquits and iguanas, I agreed to their removal after my husband’s magic words, “falling coconuts on grandchildren’s heads”. I missed the sound of the fronds in the trade winds, I did not miss the downward thump of nuts landing. 

We had a plan. The garden we have is nothing like the plan. Rather it has evolved. Our only hard and fast proviso demanded a garden for birds, butterflies and bees. We have all three, and even on occasion play host to a gluttonous night heron who, with great patience and stealth, steals fish from the pond.

Our planting, to a true horticulturalist, might seem haphazard but it works. Portlandia rubs shoulders with lemon grass and duranta. Natal plum nestles next to gardenia. Lantana (a weed to my Australian friends) plays nicely with ixora. Plumbago and jasmine share purple and white space. Cuban palms reach skywards, their trunks adorned with orchids. Hamelia and snow-on-the-mountain nudge the fence line with Ginger Thomas, the national flower of the Virgin Islands. A few we’ve bought – one, a bottle brush, in a nod to my Australian heritage. Some plants were in the garden – a China rose hibiscus, milk and honey lilies, mother-in-laws tongue although, it must be said, my MIL’s words were never sharp.

Plant sharing is a way of life on St Croix and so, as I wander from the patio to the pergola to the perch on the peak, I am reminded each step of the way of friendships made. Parakeet flowers, poor man’s orchid, hibiscus and gingers from Emy, cacti from Pat, orchids from Susan, all manner of unnamed seedlings from Rosalie, jatropha from Don, and from Toni and Isabel respectively a yellow and crimson frangipani.

How does my garden grow, the one I won’t be leaving? Very well, thank you!

It’s been a turbulent few weeks on either side of the Atlantic. Britain has left the European Union. The United States has been embroiled in an unseemly farrago wherein any semblance of gravitas and civility has been shredded from those, we the people, have put into office. I have been feeling overwhelmed. In despair that the country in which I currently live is lead by a bear-of-very-little brain. Except Winnie-the-Pooh knew his limitations.

“When you are Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I doubt A A Milne’s wise words have been read by the man in the White House. And I was close to sticking my head in the honey pot, or perhaps deep in the Caribbean sand.

And so, last night, I took myself on a magical mystery tour.

The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands at St George Village on St Croix is home to over a thousand varieties of plants on 16 acres of what was a Danish colonial sugarcane plantation. The ruins, an important part of the island’s heritage, are surrounded by plants and trees that reinforce their value as a source of food, medicine, fiber and dyes. Crucian culture was also on display with Lucien Downes’ latest works on the walls. Magic in the plant and art kingdom.

The magic didn’t end there.

The squalls, prevalent at this time of year, stayed away. The evening was balmy with just enough breeze to keep mosquitoes at bay. Palms were encircled by shimmering lights and there was a pleasant hubbub from those present.

A man in black settled himself on a chair, cleared his throat, picked up the mic and, at first, spoke with a hesitancy wholly unfounded. Søren Madsen, who is Danish, has a facility with English that puts many native speakers to shame. He was self-deprecating, and delighted to be in the USA for the first time. Comments called from the audience intimated he was in the best part of America. I am inclined to agree.

He began to play. His instrument? The Spanish guitar. He drew us in, some might say with emotional blackmail, when he played Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. Hauntingly beautiful and, which Mr Madsen explained, is in minor keys. “We Scandinavians are melancholic,” he said.

Madsen laughingly told us he plays “Mozart to Metallica”, and he surely does. Stevie Wonder came next, then a Beatles medley. The magical mystery tour was in full swing. Chirruping crickets and cicadas provided the chorus and Madsen’s fingers flew along the frets, his hand lifting from the neck of the guitar with a smooth grace. He never once flinched when bats swooped in joyous abandon under the marquee. 

I too have an eclectic musical taste but had never been a fan of heavy metal until Metallica came along in the 90’s. I am not the only person to be a convert because Madsen told the story of how when he played his arrangement of Unforgiven in a Danish hospice, a 94 year-old gentleman told him, “Now I like heavy metal.” The comment was however followed by another elderly patient saying, “The best part is the last chord!”

The first all the way through to the last chord of Madsen’s rendition of Nothing Else Matters was pure lyrical magic. I closed my eyes and the shenanigans swamping the world, and which had been absorbing me, drifted away on his notes.

Trained in classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, where he was awarded a unanimous vote of excellence, Madsen continued his musical education in Basel, Vienna and Prague. Not only a soloist, he has played with the Danish Guitar Duo, Duo Paganini and The Blackbirds – a Danish nod to the Beatles, and he shares his talent with students. Playing a composition of his own, Malaguena, in honour of his Spanish guitar, proved his virtuosity as a composer as well as an arranger.

We heard La Cumparsita, a tango by Rodriguez, swiftly followed by Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Coldplay, ABBA, the BeeGees, more Beatles. Even Elvis came into play. An old Danish folksong medley was made timeless, and it seemed as if countless guitars were under the tent competing in singing strings. And who can miss the opening chords of Hotel California? I never wanted to check out.

Søren Madsen played the final piece. The magic dissipated into the evening air dripping with the scent of night blooms. But as The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands emptied, Nothing Else Matters remained. I wondered if James Hetfield, who wrote the song in 1990 whilst on the phone to his then girlfriend, and Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, ever imagined their melody, also in a melancholic minor chord, would find its way to a seductive Caribbean island. 

“Life is ours, we live it our way…. ….. Forever trusting who we are No, nothing else matters.”

Getting Shot!

December 30, 2019 — 9 Comments

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

The Pelican was penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, an American poet and humourist, although the poem is more often credited to Ogden Nash who included it in his 1940 anthology, The Face is Familiar. Plagiarism is a dirty word.

So too is cruelty. 

Such is the risk for pelicans, and other birds on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Arid on the east end and verdant on the west – only 28 miles apart – natural beauty is surrounded by soothing Caribbean waters. There are though beasts who hide along the bays and inlets ready to shoot down birds skimming with magisterial solemnity above these waters.

What possible sport can that be?

There are eight species of pelicans but here on our island we have the Brown Pelican – a dull name for an august bird whose white head above a chestnut nape and brownish-silver feathers remind me of a be-gowned and wigged judge. They are ungainly as they take flight, flapping their wings and slapping the water with big webbed feet, but as they find thermal currents they can soar as high as 10,000 feet. No wonder the Wright Brothers studied avian aerodynamics. Technical aspects of a pelican are remarkable. The air pockets in their bones are connected to respiratory airways lying under the throat, breast and wings and aid buoyancy, allowing the birds to keep their wings horizontal and steady.

“Almost like bubblewrap,” says Toni Lance, artist, photographer, certified falconer, licensed bird rehabilitator, and founder of the St Croix Avian Sanctuary.

Meet Gabriel, an adult of uncertain sex but of breeding age, shot down a week ago. Due to the location of the pellet surgery was not an option. There was no sign of a break and so Ms Lance is attempting to rehabilitate the bird at the Sanctuary on St Croix’s south shore. She moves the wing but it remains unwieldy, unable to be lifted. She sprays Gabriel with water to encourage preening which in turn helps get oil back into his feathers. The pelican dutifully preens. His appetite is good. If not for the shot wing Gabriel would be flying free as a bird, preparing to mate and sustain his species.

The Brown Pelican – clever birds that they are – stuns its fish by plunging headfirst into the ocean. The airsacs in its wings lessen the impact and bobs the bird back to the surface to float, rather like a cork. If the waters are shallow or churned, pelicans have a back-up system for fishing. Unlike other birds, pelicans have four toes rather than the standard three, which allows effective paddling whilst using that huge pouched beak as a scoop, which they then drain by tipping their head back. It is this manoeuvre that makes them most vulnerable to the thieving habits of others, mainly seagulls, who are wont to steal fish right out of the mouths.

Gabriel, irrespective of sex, is a breeding adult. Unlike other areas, St Croix tends not to have large squadrons of pelicans but rather three or four flying in formation. If Gabriel cannot be rehabilitated in the next few weeks, and this is by no means certain, he / she will be euthanized. That means the loss of probably two healthy young a year for the next twenty years. 

You do the maths.

Avian rehabilitation is not all a flying success. Ms Lance has, over the years, seen many birds soar to freedom but there have also been those unable to be released. Some, such as a peregrine falcon, she has used as aids in an effort to educate children about the importance of treasuring our resources, and honouring the freedom of flight; others with no chance of survival in the wild – often the ones shot by ignorant and brutish people – are euthanized.

Where is the outrage? The chance of the perpetrator of this crime being caught is remote and, sadly, it is only a matter of time before the St Croix Avian Sanctuary is again called upon to rescue a shot bird.

I am assured by Ms Lance that Gabriel is, like most pelicans, a good-natured bird. They have been around for many years – the oldest fossil found is dated thirty-million years ago – and they have remained remarkably similar, if somewhat smaller. They were, in medieval Europe, considered a symbol of sacrifice due to the belief a pelican would, if no other food was available, wound her own breast to feed blood to her young. 

The wound in Gabriel’s wing cannot be mended by an infusion of blood. It may not mend at all. The chance of seeing this magnificent bird fly again is slim. Grounded and unable to swim in seawater, Gabriel’s paddled feet, even on a padded perch, will break down with pressure sores. An inhumanity that cannot be countenanced.

“I’d need to be set up like Seaworld to keep pelicans in captivity,” Ms Lance explained. Disgust should be filtered through towns, school halls and social media at the wanton cruelty and ‘sport’ of shooting an innocent bird, animal or human. There is too much of it.

“A wonderful bird is the pelican….”

But this is not a humorous story. Gabriel’s life is likely to be short. A sanctuary can only do so much. Birds have to deal with the elements. That’s enough. That’s natural. Getting shot is not.