When the Vanderwall family left Wilton in 2015 to spend a year abroad in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, never did they imagine they’d form a connection to the island and its residents like they have. Now, after Hurricane Irma unleashed destruction across the Caribbean, and Category 5 Hurricane Maria is ferociously bearing down to slam St. John and St. Thomas again, they’re hoping they can connect Wilton to St. Thomas even more.
“We’d love to raise awareness about the U.S. Virgin Islands–a territory of the United States–what they’re going through and how people can help. They (mainly St Thomas and St John) got hit very hard by Irma last week and there’s lots of devastation and need. It was sandwiched between the storms in Texas and Florida and we don’t want them to be forgotten,” Jennifer says.
She and her husband, Scott, and their children, Ryan and Casey, lived in St. Thomas for the 2015-2016 school year. They went to have a new experience, and an opportunity to learn and gain a different perspective than what they had in Connecticut. Now they’re sharing the perspective about how much damage the storms will inflict and the toll they’ll take–and what help is most needed.
Helping One at a Time
The majority of residents were unable to get off island by the time it became clear they faced a direct hit from the Category 5 storm. We’ve seen pictures and news reports of towns and houses collapsed in rubble, cars that had been picked up in the winds and tossed some distance away. People walking around in shock, at all the damage. With scarce resources and infrastructure it will be a long time before any sense of normalcy returns.
First they reached out to their closest friends still living on St. Thomas.
“Scott and I offered to have our friends’ son, Dalton, live with us while they work through the short term challenges–cleanup, food, shelter, electricity, etc.–and focus on rebuilding. Dalton is my son, Ryan’s, best friend in St Thomas and is already like a member of our family. He’s a great kid,” Jennifer says.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: At the bottom of the article is a CNN video about a family whose lives Dalton and his father, John Parr, saved at the height of the hurricane.]
Dalton and his parents thought carefully and decided it would be in Dalton’s best interest to send him to live with the Vanderwalls in Wilton for the school year. But how would they get him here with so few resources on island.
Like many instances that we’ve seen the Wilton community come together to help others, so too does Jennifer credit several people here and in St. Thomas who have been, and continue to be, so helpful, both in getting Dalton here and also in getting much needed supplies and money back to the islands.
Jen explains what it took:
- “The Saturday after Irma hit, (Sept. 9) we learned through friends of a group orchestrating a hurricane relief/supply run to St. Thomas on a private plane, and we secured Dalton a seat on their return trip to White Plains on Monday (Sept. 11). As backup, we knew a family in St. Croix, who like many others, were bringing supplies over to St. Thomas by private boat. Even though he was a stranger, they volunteered to pick Dalton up and have him stay at their home until we could get him on a flight to New York.”
- With Dalton on the way, the Vanderwalls started scrambling to make sure they’d be able to bring Dalton to mainland U.S. and into school. They received divine intervention at church on Sunday, Sept. 10, in the form of friends who offered some advice on what would need to be done to get him here and into school. “One even drafted a Power of Attorney (POA) on the back of a Sunday bulletin that we typed and sent down with the relief plane,” Jennifer said.
- That meant that Dalton’s parents had to coordinate with a notary to meet where the supply plane was on Monday to sign and stamp the POA in person and by hand. Nothing could be sent, transmitted, printed, or copied given that there was no electricity and so much office equipment had been destroyed.
- Once he finally reached Wilton, they got him settled and worked with the school district to get him enrolled at Wilton High School, where he started this week.
Helping Many Others
Thanks to their connections and ties to the island, the Vanderwalls have identified two groups that they feel can do the most good to a) provide direct relief (Virgin Islands ASAP Relief Group) and/or b) add value to the community and bring back some normalcy for kids (St. Thomas Swim Association).
“I know there are lots of other ways to give back (Red Cross, Americares, etc.), but we like the direct and impactful relief that these two provide,” says Jennifer.
Virgin Islands ASAP Relief Group
Virgin Islands ASAP Relief Group is the group of good Samaritans who let Dalton hitch a ride on their plane. They are coordinating ongoing supply runs/evacuations and raising money to continue providing direct relief. You can visit their website or go directly to their fundraising site to contribute.
St Thomas Swimming Association
St Thomas Swimming Association (STSA) is a community organization that provides an outstanding program for local kids, from learn-to-swim to coaching for serious competition. Jennifer’s daughter, Casey, was a swimmer on the USVI National Swim Team when they lived there. “The coaches, John Vasbinder and Susan Andrews and the team are simply amazing. It’s a true island community gem, and we want to help get the kids back in the pool,” she says.
To donate to STSA, visit the fundraising link to the donation page that has been set up for this purpose.
On a smaller scale, the Vanderwall family is assessing needs of people in their network in the Virgin Islands, and will collect and send based on what they find out is needed. If she needs to put out a call to Wilton to help, GOOD Morning Wilton will always have space for her to share the request.