Aug. 15, 2003 – The beach at John Brewers Bay has been home all this week to the Marine Kids Korps, an extraordinary summer camp program designed to teach handicapped and disadvantaged children how to swim.
Thirty-one young people from the V.I. Resource Center have been getting training in water safety, swimming, snorkeling and even scuba diving.
What makes the program unique is that working with the camp as lifeguards are other youngsters, under the guidance of the adult instructors who oversee the activities (and make sure everybody has a good lunch in the middle of the day's activities).
"These kids, or teen-agers, rather, sign up from the various high schools to participate in our lifeguard training program which runs from December to May at Brewers Bay," Michele Downes said. She is the president and founder of Marine Kids Korps.
"The classes given in this program are all taught by American Red Cross-certified staff and prepare the kids to assist at the summer camp in August," she said, adding that extra Friday and Saturday classes are available during the school year for those interested.
The lifeguard trainees get hands-on experience at the camp held each August which caters to participants ages 6 to 25.
Downes and program assistant director Edie Johnson founded the Marine Kids Korps five years ago. "What we do is pick a single youth organization every year to work with," Downes said, "and this year it is the V.I. Resource Center." In the past, she said, the group has worked with youngsters from the V.I. Housing Authority and the Paul M. Pearson Gardens and Kirwan Terrace housing communities.
"We pick up the kids in the morning at 9, give them lunch, and take them home again at 3," she said. "We teach them how to swim, snorkel and scuba dive, and also give them some marine biology lessons." And there are arts and crafts on the beach in between.
Downes said she was motived to develop the program "because there have always been disadvantaged children who didn't know how to swim, and whose families didn't have the money to pay for lessons."
A certified lifeguard training instructor, Downes has been running the program since 1998 with funding provided entirely by grants and donations. Sponsors include the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, Blue Water Divers, the Admiralty Dive Shop and hoteliers William Dowling and Richard Doumeng.
Last December, when the Community Foundation announced the recipients of its first Silverbells and Cockleshells awards to not-for-profit organizations serving the territory's children, the Maine Kids Korps was one of three groups to receive a gold award, the highest honor.
Downes and Johnson donate their time and talents. ("We're all volunteers," Johnson said of the adults involved.) The program's biggest need, Downes said, is for a van to transport participants to and from camp, to help single working parents "who don't always have the time to drop off and pick up their kids."
This year, fortunately, Johnson said, V.I. Resource Center was able to provide the necessary transportation for its clients involved in the program.
The results of this year's camp were evident even before the end of the week, with the participating youngsters making great strides in swimming, using snorkel and scuba equipment and just having fun.
"We learned a lot about swimming," said Valerie Dawson, 15, whose statement was confirmed by her campmates. "We like the exercises and always look forward to the snorkeling."
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