July 8, 2002 – While some adults go to great lengths to steer young people toward the right direction in life, two St. Thomas police officers and some local dive instructors have also gone to great depths.
A dozen youngsters from the Bovoni Housing Community and surrounding residential areas recently returned from Key Largo, Florida, where they took part in a youth summit on scuba diving. They went in the company of two Housing Authority police officers, participants in the federally sponsored Weed and Seed program — Officers Louis Magras and Adrien Huggins.
The officers said the Virgin Islands made quite a splash at the National Black Scuba Divers Association Youth Summit — by accounting for nearly half of the participants and by arriving as fully trained and certified divers. There were 15 other young people there, from Florida and Tennessee.
"They went to be recognized for their accomplishments," said Magras, who proudly pointed to the fact that 10 of his crew, ages 10 to 17, were master scuba divers when they left St. Thomas. One was certified as an open-water diver and one had received certification as a rescue diver.
Magras said the idea for the Weed and Seed Bovoni Scuba Dive Team came from Huggins, his partner, who has been diving since 1989. The original thrust of the program was to introduce the kids to a new experience and show them how their dive skills could lead to careers in the marine industry. Instruction took place at the St. Thomas Diving Club.
Much of their expertise was gained with the help of dive club instructor Bill Letts, who along with other club instructors opened the training facilities to the Weed and Seed group. "Over the last two years we have certified 16 local youths, primarily from Bovoni," Letts said. "Ten of these have achieved the level of Junior Master Scuba Diver as well as Master Scuba Diver, the only difference being age."
Magras said he was also inspired to take the plunge, and trained and received certification along with the youngsters. "It's because of this program that I learned to start diving," he said.
Becoming a certified diver is far from easy, Lett said, and some Weed and Seed youngsters as well as some dive club volunteer instructors, decided to drop out. But, to their credit, he said, many decided to stick it out. "Many students had to retake swim tests and exams, study questions and continue to retake until they could demonstrate they were able to handle the challenge, or drop out of the program."
"Diving is a disciplined sport," Letts noted. "Without following the rules, it can be dangerous." He said those who succeeded in the training "are responsible for their own achievements."
He said the biggest lesson for one student in the medical training course was learning to speak up. "I instructed her on how to approach a victim. As you approach, you are to say, 'I am medically trained; I can help.' I told her it would not be effective if she whispered the statement. She had to instill confidence in the victim that she really could help. So, she must say in a loud and forceful manner 'I am trained …'
"Well, it was like a door opening. She came on loud and strong, and for the rest of her classes she would speak up and be heard — whether I liked it or not!"
It took a different kind of effort to get the divers to the youth summit, one led by student divers and their parents, who held raffles and other fund-raisers. Their efforts were supplemented by funds from the Housing Authority and Weed and Seed.
There's been a ripple effect, too. As word of the dive team's adventure had spread, Magras said, more kids are showing up and signing up to learn to dive. "Before, they were a little scared to try something new," he said. "It's not a problem now."
And now some of the Bovoni divers are helping others — even their elders — to take on new frontiers beneath the surface of the sea. "One of the smallest and lightest young girls became known as 'Fish' — anything underwater became natural to her," Letts said. "She eventually helped her mother overcome her fears of night diving, but it took some effort."
Huggins summed up the challenge of recruiting, training and keeping his students committed to the dive program in three words: "It wasn't easy."
It was the same comment he used to summarize the scuba diving summit. One of the kids missed the plane to Florida. Heavy rains while they were there lowered visibility and cut back on the number of dives the youngsters got to make, and much of the activity was kept indoors. But as things turned out, that gave the Virgin Islanders yet another chance to shine.
They had taken along a set of steelpans, and they played to the delight of the organizers, Huggins said, and also performed a quadrille dance. In short, "They represented the Virgin Islands," he said, in the process getting to recognize the value of the contributions they had to offer and how much those contributions were appreciated by the outside world.
And, he said, the dive conditions in the Florida Keys helped the youngsters to appreciate their surroundings back home, especially the quality of the water they get to dive in year-round.
Despite the trials of getting his program off the ground, Huggins said, he would do it over again — and he hopes that he'll get the opportunity to do just that. "If I had a chance to get everyone in the Virgin Islands to become a certified diver, I'd do it," he said.
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