July 19, 2002 – With snorkel gear properly in place, the 32 youngsters from the final Friends of the V.I. National Park eco-camp of the summer headed out into Lameshur Bay.
"I like the beach," Sade John, 11, of St. Thomas said as he and his fellow campers enjoyed the first afternoon of their three-day, two-night camp experience at the V.I. Environmental Resource Station on St. John.
Kelly Wallace, 9, a St. John resident, was excited about meeting people from other islands. "It's cool," she said, heading into the water.
This summer, VIERS has hosted four Friends of the Park eco-camps plus several camps sponsored by other groups. While the young people were learning snorkel skills so they could participate in a marine excursion, the camp's goal was to help them develop an appreciation for the environment.
"It's to help create future conservation citizens of the Virgin Islands and to give the kids an opportunity to interact with nature and the park," Joe Kessler, Friends president, said.
Randy Brown, director of Clean Islands International, the organization that manages VIERS for the University of the Virgin Islands, called it a matter of environmental stewardship. "These environmental citizens will respect the mangroves and the coral reefs because they understand about them," he said.
Besides snorkel trips, the eco-camps include hikes and evening campfire talks on ecology, history and conservation, Brown said.
For many of the children, a stay at VIERS is their first exposure to nature as it exists in a place without streetlights and paved roads. Located near Lameshur Bay, the station is reached by driving to the end of the paved road past Salt Pond, and then down an unpaved hill from hell. Once drivers reach the road's flat part, they pass mangroves and tropical vegetation and may encounter the occasional deer crossing the road or strolling through the camp.
The layout of the station, originally the base camp for the Tektite undersea laboratory research project in the 1960s, consists of a collection of rudimentary cabins grouped around a shady lawn plus a bathhouse, dining hall and office. A lab facility sits a good walk away at the sea.
VIERS operates with a very small paid staff and the help of volunteers like the ones who taught the youngsters to snorkel. St. Thomas resident Jillian Williams saw an advertisement for the eco-camps and signed up six kids, plus herself as a chaperone. "I wanted somewhere for the kids to go for the summer," she said as she watched the group frolic in the water.
Williams said her children participated in a VIERS eco-camp last year, so she knew the value of the experience. Brown said more advanced experiences are arranged for returning students.
Will Bostwick, a college student from Trevortin, Pennsylvania, also was watching the young people learn to snorkel, but that was his job as a Friends intern. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the island's culture. "And I'm learning about kids," he added.
The Friends eco-camps are free. Those offered this summer were sponsored by Texaco Caribbean, Disney Cruise Lines, the V.I. Agriculture Department, Rotary East of St. Thomas and four private donors who wish to remain anonymous.
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