Second of four parts
April 13, 2004 – When Dave Rivers arrived in the Virgin Islands three years ago, his mission was simple, his methodology developed over years of doing volunteer community development work in Jamaica and Western Africa. He'd come to the territory with a clear personal mandate: Make things better in the community, somehow.
It didn't matter to him that he'd never been in the islands before and knew virtually no one. It didn't matter that his first months in the territory were spent listening to people, Virgin Islanders both native and from elsewhere, who told him he couldn't make a difference, that his new community was too fraught with problems, politics as usual and apathy for any one person to change it.
Rivers just smiled and kept on walking.
People are called to different paths in life. Some follow the well-worn ways of business and financial achievement; some find their way into teaching, medicine, science or politics. Some start out further along the path because of a family name, or because they are given solid guidance and resources from loving parents. Some go far; some do not. And, of course, many fall by the wayside.
Rivers, it seems, has been called to tread beside the paths of others — to find the people who are lost, who have been left behind, and to help them find their way again. And if one thing is clear after his three years in the Virgin Islands, it is that Rivers does not walk alone.
"I came here, walked right out into the streets and started introducing myself," he recalled. "It's the only way to get things done. You have to see how things really work; you have to find out what's going on in the community."
Rivers has proven wrong those who told him he couldn't do it — with the help of a host of key individuals, a handful of private corporations and an international organization called One Church One Family. He's been able to establish integral relationships with more than 40 community and faith-based groups, meanwhile supporting himself through a combination of minimal expenses, a knack for personal finance, and access to savings from his former life as a businessman.
Randall Goulding and Dave Rivers Sr., Dave's father, are involved with an Economic Development Program beneficiary. Such companies are required to support community programs and, as Goulding put it," There is a great deal of work that can be done here, and we wanted to see more companies doing their part."
They encouraged Rivers to come to the territory to organize a more effective structure for identifying the needs of the community and obtaining the resources to meet them.
Goulding, a businessman from Chicago, chairs the board of One Church One Family, the umbrella organization for three other groups — One Church One Child, One Church One Addict, and One Church One Inmate.(See "For Dave Rivers, coordinating is a calling".)
"The whole idea was simple and effective," Goulding said. "Tap the strength and conviction of all faith-based groups, no matter what religion, and work with federal and state agencies to provide the money for training and long-term support."
Not being a religious man, Rivers initially balked at the idea of working with One Church One Family. "I didn't necessarily see faith-based communities as the way to go," he said. But he kept at it, following his own instincts, and was soon introduced to a St. Croix resident who made all the difference.
When social worker Rebecca Dedmond met Rivers, she had been living on St. Croix for several years and was working with the Education Department on a federal school-to-work grant, helping to develop programs from kindergarten through college level aimed at connecting students' school work with future employment.
"Dave walked into my office one day and introduced himself," Dedmond relates. "All he knew was that I was involved with community development. We've been working together ever since."
According to Rivers, the two quickly evolved an efficient way of getting things done: "Rebecca was good with paperwork, analyzing data and writing grants. I was good with getting out, talking to people running the programs that were already running, and finding companies willing to work with us."
Before long, "we started working with One Family," Rivers said, explaining that he and Dedmond became so successful in their endeavor that they needed a way to deal with all the money and resources that were beginning to flow in. They wanted to see 100 percent of what they received go directly back into the territory. One Family provided them with an established charity structure making that possible.
But to really understand what they've been up to, as Rivers says, you have to go out into the community.
Wanda Hamilton Wright and Sasha Marohn run a number of programs for children, women and families on St. Croix. The name of their blanket organization, Childworth, pretty much says it all.
"We provide individual, group and family therapy at the Childworth center," Wright explained. "And we are currently running a program called Supporting Our Sisters, through which we provide assisted living for young ladies who, for a variety of reasons, have nowhere else to go."
She continued: "Sometimes there is physical or sexual abuse going on in the home and the girls will have to run away to protect themselves. Sometimes a parent may die, leaving no one to care for the child. Sometimes families will just decide it's time for the young woman to be on her own."
Whatever the causes, Wright says significant numbers of teen-age girls in the Virgin Islands either live on the streets or depend on friends to shelter them, moving from one home to the next when their welcome wears out.
Wright says that almost all of the teens she works with have inadequate education and come from homes where abuse and neglect were the norm. Many have children they have no way to support.
Through her SOS program, Wright works with girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 21 and their children. To qualify for the program the young women must be in school or working and, more important, "they have to be willing to help themselves," she says. "We can give them a safe place to live, we can give them counseling, we can teach them nutritional and life skills, and we can help them with school work and job training. But if they're not willing to put in the effort themselves, there's very little we can do."
With a staff of seven, funded through a five-year federal grant, Wright and Marohn are able to provide a supportive living environment for four women and their children at a time. But some of their needs have not been met with the grant money. And that's where Rivers, Dedmond and One Family come in.
"David has supplied us with computers and printers for two complete learning centers, one at the Childworth center, and one at the residential home," Wright said.
At the residence, women use the computers to do school work, learn new skills that will help them find better jobs, and create resumes. At the Childworth center, the computers are used in after-school programs for children, adult education, and testing and evaluation, among other things.
Wright and Marohn also work with men. Through programs designed to improve self-esteem and increase involvement in family life, they are spreading the word that men need to be active, loving fathers and not just daddies.
Sisters of the Good Shepherd
Operating out of a building in the Times Square section of Christiansted, where a score of streetfront bars fill the nights with alcohol, drugs and prostitution, Sister Claudia and Sister Victoria do the kind of work that few people would ever c
Invited to the territory several years ago by then-Bishop Elliott Thomas, they are members of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, a religious order with a history going back more than 200 years.
Their literature explains their mission: "We are profoundly convinced that when we work together and maximize our connectedness, we totally exploit our God-given capacity for personal healing, growth and change to the benefit of the human family and of our mother Earth. And, we admit to a preference for those who in any way have been marginalized or left behind, anyone who has been abused or neglected, especially women and children."
Sister Claudia and Sister Victoria minister to the needs of Times Square prostitutes. It is not all they do, but it is, perhaps, the most thankless of their tasks.
"There are many," Sister Claudia said. "Most came here from the Dominican Republic seeking a better life, but they did not speak English and couldn't find jobs. Now, many are in their 40s and are too old to want to learn."
She explains that the work the women do brings in much more money than they could make "cleaning rooms at the hotels."
The sisters have had to get creative in their outreach. Sister Claudia explained that in order to develop relationships with the women, they've started making donations of clothing available to them. Rivers regularly collects clothing items from some of the more affluent St. Croix residents and brings them to the center.
"They come here for new clothes," Sister Claudia explained, "and in this way we come to know them. We teach a little English, give them food when they are hungry, a place to rest when the street becomes too much."
Success is not measured in the number of women who change their profession. Sister Claudia admits that most don't. But the sisters continue to reach out, believing that in some way they are helping.
The sisters also work with pregnant teens and women in crisis. By combing through St. Croix's poorer housing communities they find expectant girls and mothers in need, and to them they supply prenatal counseling, medical support, maternity clothing, transportation services and, sometimes, a celebration of the life to come.
During an interview, Sister Claudia produced a photo album filled with pictures of baby showers she and Sister Victoria had thrown for girls and women they worked with. The images are of proud moms-to-be surrounded by presents and a small but important community of love and support.
The two sisters also run adult education and support groups for male and female inmates at St. Croix's Golden Grove Correctional Facility.
All of these activities, in one way or another, are supported through the work of Rivers, Dedmond and One Family.
Sister Claudia told of Fredensborg, a squatter community in the center of St. Croix that sprang up in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo passed across the island leaving destruction in its wake.
Despite a population of hundreds, she says, there is no running water, no electricity, and the housing is as degraded as any developing country shanty-town. Most residents, she says, came to St. Croix from impoverished sections of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; some are from Puerto Rico; some are Crucian. All, she says, are desperately poor.
For the children of Fredensborg the sisters run an after-school program.
Since there is not a single building there that can serve as a community center, the children are picked up in vans and brought to the Times Square building. Using a dozen computers and other materials obtained through the efforts of Rivers and Dedmond, the Sisters work four afternoons every week with 26 children.
The children are tutored and taught English. Beginning this week, they will take swimming lessons from St. Croix Swimming Foundation volunteers.
But despite these efforts, Sister Claudia makes it clear that the youngsters are not getting all that they need.
She told of a girls 6 or 7 years old who was sick with an infection. Sister Claudia took her to a doctor, who examined her and prescribed medication. She then took the child to a pharmacy, purchased antibiotics, and explained to the youngster that she was to take one pill in the morning and one at night.
A few days later, when Sister Claudia met with her young friend again, she asked if she had been taking her medication. The girl said she had not. When the Sister asked why, the girl explained that she'd had no water the day before, and could not swallow the pills.
As Wright, Marohn and the sisters continue on with their work on St. Croix, Rivers, Dedmond and One Church continue to help in any way that they can. But much more needs to be done, Rivers says.
He spoke of what it was like trying to accomplish things in his early days in the territory, before he met Dedmond, before they began to work with One Family.
"People kept telling me that this is the Third World," he said. "I have worked in the bush of Africa. I have worked in countries that have been decimated by decades of violence and civil war. And let me tell you, this is not the Third World. This is the First World. We are surrounded by everything we need. We are surrounded by wealth and resources and human energy. This is all so easy. People just have to step up to the plate."
Editor's note: Anyone who knows a young woman, child or man who might benefit from the work being done at Childworth is encouraged to contact Wright and Marohn by calling 773-6747. To find out how you, your organization or your company can get involved in the work in which Rivers is involved, call 643-6513.
Next: Work with an organization that trains and finds jobs for the disabled and with a successful after-school program
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