March 23, 2006 – Ten years ago, Alvis Christian and a band of determined folks saw a problem that needed solving. Their efforts will be celebrated April 8 when the John's Folly Learning Institute commemorates its 10th anniversary with an event that begins at 11 a.m. at the institute.
"We realized that there were no services for youngsters and adults out here," Christian said, relaxing for a quick moment as the Tuesday afterschool group met for tutoring, some lessons in marine biology, and some fun.
The Learning Institute building is also used by community groups and just about anyone who needs function space at this end of the island, he said.
Christian said the institute operates on a budget of about $36,000 a year that funds building improvements as well as programs.
The road to success was long and hard for Learning Institute supporters. The first task came in mucking out the old Horace Mann School, located near the water at the tip of St. John's southeast corner.
The building sat empty for decades, was in horrible repair and had served as home for goats and other fauna.
"Then we had the task of fencing the entire area to keep out the goats," Christian said.
Christian successfully navigated the local government bureaucracy to get a lease on the school, got some block grant money and helped spearhead many, many food sales to raise funds to rehabilitate the building and get the school's programs under way.
The Learning Institute is in the midst of installing its solar power system, a move Christian hopes will allow it to sell power back to the V.I. Water and Power Authority.
And Christian has dreams of constructing a two-story building adjacent to the Institute to bring scientists to the site to study marine biology and botany. He said he also wants to include dormitories in the building.
Christian said the Institute plans a trip this summer to Washington, D.C., to show its students how government works and to show them life outside St. John.
"These youngsters have got to be exposed to more and not grow up thinking St. John is the world," he said.
Several years ago, the students went to Kennedy Space Center in Florida with the same goal in mind. And Christian wants to take them on trips to other Caribbean islands and to different parts of the states so they understand different customs.
The institute depends on a cadre of six volunteers to run the afterschool programs.
Volunteer David Grigg supervised a handful of children letting off some energy outside the building. He joked, "They all have good brains, but sometimes it's like pulling teeth."
Inside, other students were doing homework. On other days, students participate in the Breezes program, classes that help students learn how to communicate better and how to deal with people.
Christian said his goal is to let the children realize that they have it within themselves to reach their potential. "And that discipline and respect take them a long way," he said.
The kids had lots to say about what they enjoyed about the afterschool program.
"Going to the pool," 6-year-old Raquisha Edwards said, echoing the remarks of her friends, Latiah Jackson, 8, and Rahsek'ka Titre, 9.
The students swim once a week at the nearby Concordia Studios and Eco-tents pool.
Nine-year-old Lee Sykes had a different take on what's fun. "I learn how to make plants grow," he said.
Indeed, the grounds surrounding the Learning Institute building are bursting with all manner of tropical plants, grown to help the students learn how to do it for themselves.
But one of the Institute's biggest challenges comes in getting parents involved.
Christian said, "Education is not just sending your kids to school."
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