Responding to COVID-19 in... St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
This post continues a series highlighting the responses of SECF members to the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities. We will use this series to highlight partnerships, coalitions and innovative examples of giving that help those affected by this crisis. If you are involved in a program you would like to see highlighted here, contact David Miller, director of marketing and communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the first week of June also marks the start of a time of high alert: the Atlantic hurricane season.
This year, of course, has already been marked by crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t hit the island as hard as the mainland United States, but its economic impacts are impossible to ignore in a place with an economy largely dependent on tourism and hospitality. Cruise ships, normally a regular presence at the island’s ports, have been shuttered for months. The local airport only receives one flight a day.
While there have been real consequences from the pandemic, resilience has been the defining feature of St. Croix’s pandemic experience, said Deanna James, president of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development.
“For all intents and purposes, we live in a village. There are different human dynamics that happen in a village,” she said. “Basic needs are met in a much more different way than if you lived in an apartment in New York City and didn’t know anyone around you.
James noted that multi-generational families living together are more common on St. Croix than on the mainland. The overall community is also extremely tight-knit, meaning few people are truly without options for food and shelter, even when the economy is in decline.
“Family units are tighter and there’s a measure of security and wealth ensured because families are living together in a way that they don’t in a larger city,” she said. “There’s an incredible amount of resilience here. I don’t doubt for one second the level of resolve that people have here to just be OK.”
This resilience, however, was hard-earned. Much of St. Croix’s recent history is defined by hurricanes and how the territory has recovered from them. The St. Croix Foundation can trace its own history to the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. In 2017, the island suffered a one-two punch from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. One month after Maria struck the island, only 1.6 percent of residents had electricity, and most residents still had no power months later.
Three years later, recovery continues, and the island’s communities are still in a vulnerable state - James said people are “keeping it together with spit and glue right now,” comparing St. Croix to rural communities of color in the Southeast.
“Our opportunity here is to shift the conversation around development. When we leave ourselves open to tourism as our main economic driver, when there’s a hurricane or some other economic crisis, that completely topples the economy,” said Jonathan Williams, the foundation’s development coordinator. “We’ve been through so many different kinds of storms – this is just another one.”
The foundation has worked hard to draw attention to the needs of St. Croix and other Caribbean Islands. Just before the pandemic brought travel to a halt, James hosted dozens of philanthropic leaders from across the country, including Tiffany Friesen, SECF’s vice president of programs and partnerships.
“When I tell you national philanthropy has been neglectful of us in the territories, it was to the point where we stopped asking,” James said. “Even when we got disaster relief support, when we asked if they were willing to make a long-term engagement beyond that hurricane, almost every one of them said no.”
SECF membership has gone a long way toward changing that, James said. She and her staff have been regular attendees at the Annual Meeting and have spoken at sessions. Along the way, the St. Croix Foundation has become more connected than ever.
“We know we have the capacity and relationships and we have incredible nonprofits we know so well doing so much with almost nothing,” James said. “We’re really grateful for SECF and the fact that you’ve actually included us in the work you’re doing.”