“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” said Tonia Lovejoy, triumphing over a catch in her voice as she spoke at the dedication of the playground near the V.I. National Park’s Visitors Center Saturday morning.
Lovejoy, the executive director of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, has been leading an effort for more than four years to rebuild Cruz Bay’s only playground after it was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“This park is deeply symbolic of the changes the islands have gone through, and many faces are not with me now when we began this in 2018,” she said.
One of them was Park Ranger Alana Smith, who left the island several years ago. After the hurricane, Lovejoy explained, park staff were asked to contribute to a wish list, and Alana’s wish was to rebuild the playground. More than 24 National Park employees have now had a direct impact on the playground’s construction, according to VINP Superintendent Nigel Fields.
When community members began meeting to design a new playground, they had little idea of how complex the project built on federal land would become. An original design by Michael Milne of Barefoot Design Group was continually upgraded as federal requirements regarding construction, accessibility, and safety features came into play.
At the onset, community members also didn’t imagine how expensive the project would be. As they adjusted their plans, the Friends of the V.I. National Park set a goal of nearly $800,000 to complete the project, which some might have thought wildly impossible until a St. John couple, Dr. Steve and Jann Paul, stepped up with a contribution of $350,000.
Residents of St. John for 20 years (and visitors for ten years prior to that), the Pauls were looking for a way to help the island following the hurricane. “This was Jann’s idea,” said Steve Paul at the dedication ceremony.
More than a hundred residents, businesses and off-island donors also contributed to get Phase 1 underway.
On Saturday, the community celebrated the completion of Phase 1, which includes a large playhouse ( for 6-12 years olds) and a small playhouse (for 1-5 years olds) built over rubber flooring for “soft landings,” a large swing set, a Supernova rotating balancing ring, and a toddler swing set carousel.
A tots lot area, enclosed in native stone, is decorated with murals designed by Crystal and Sean D’Abbraccio of Tiny Tile Mosaics. The installation of the murals was designed as a public art project involving children, adults, and seniors.
The playground has been conceived as a way to introduce youngsters to the natural, cultural, and historical features of St. John, which will become more obvious as the second phase gets underway.
For example, a climbing structure that’s a replica of the old Customs House has been designed. The original small, wooden structure, located in the park across from the ferry dock until around 1983, served as the first park ranger station on the island. Native plants are now being grown for landscaping and shade, and a circular outdoor seating area for educational purposes is being planned.
Fundraising is now underway for Phase 2, which also includes interpretive signage and a refresh of the public restrooms.
Children of all ages took full advantage of the new equipment on Saturday, as well as of the free popsicles donated by Laura and William Tawes of Irie Pops. Music filled the air while the Dynamic Dancers showed off their moves, and Moko Jumbie Yisrael Petersen circulated among the celebrants.
Senator-at-large Angel Bolques commended the project for providing a means for children to get physical activity in an increasingly digital world. “We celebrate our children and honor them by allowing them just to be kids,” he said. “May we also never get too old to play with them.”
Quiana Adams of contractor J. Benton Construction said she’d already seen some adults taking a swing or spin on some of the equipment. She thanked her crew for putting in more than 2000 hours and meeting the deadline for the completion of the first phase.
Elroy Hill, St. John’s deputy commissioner for the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation, promised: “to keep the playground looking as beautiful as it is today.” A bill to appropriate $250,000 for the project has been approved by the 34th Legislature’s Committee on Finance.
Speakers thanked the many community members who contributed their ideas, expertise, labor, and donations, including Fred Trayser, Lorelei Monsanto, Chelsea Baranowski, the Andy Stillman Memorial Fund, David and Rhonda McCay, Melissa Wilson, Dave Carlson, Eleanor Gibney, Alfredo’s Landscaping, Kurt Marsh, G.T. Construction, Lisa Lord Price, and others.