Ribbon cutting

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. cuts the ribbon on the new George Simmons Senior Center with the assistance of V.I. Housing Authority Chief Operating Officer Lydia Pell, black suit, and V.I. Housing Authority Board of Commissioners Chairperson Dr. Noreen Michael, polka-dot dress.

The grand opening of the George Simmons Terrace Community Center Dec. 17 marked the completion of St. John’s first major post-Irma recovery project, three years and three months after the storm ravaged the island.

The 2,000 square foot V.I. Housing Authority-owned building, which has been leased by the V.I. Department of Human Services since 2006, was renovated by St. Thomas-based Custom Builders. The cost of the renovation came in at $603,654, and was paid for with FEMA funds.

The center has been the home of the DHS’s senior program, led by St. John Project Manager of Social Recreation and Senior Citizen Affairs Abigail Hendricks, since 2008. After the 2017 storm season, the seniors continued to meet at the Julius E. Sprauve School and at Sports, Parks and Recreation in Cruz Bay.

They were slated to move their meeting spot to Pond Bay when COVID-19 arrived in the territory, forcing Hendricks to change course. DHS has continued to provide outreach in the form of home visits, but isolation is known to take a toll on senior citizens.

“They would sit outside under a tree if it meant they could be together,” said Hendricks of the seniors in the DHS program.

Once it is safe for the seniors to gather again, they’ll have a brand new facility to return to, complete with a new roof, ceilings, and sheetrock; hurricane windows and doors; new lights and ceiling fans; air conditioning; space for a planned computer facility; full bath with shower; and an accessible kitchen.

At the Dec. 17 ceremony, Adrienne Williams-Octalein of the USVI Office of Disaster Recovery noted Hendricks’ passion for ensuring the seniors could get back to their Estate Adrian meeting place.

“Very early on, when we established the Office of Disaster Recovery, Abigail Hendricks came to me and said, ‘You see that building for the seniors? That’s important to them. They live to have a communion with their friends,’” said Williams-Octalein. “We took it to heart.”

V.I. Housing Authority Board of Commissioners Chairperson Dr. Noreen Michael spoke of how the post-storm challenges seriously impacted the island’s senior citizens.

“Almost three years ago I had the privilege — and I would say the pain — of participating in a research project to assess the needs of our territory’s residents in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” said Michael.

“What our work revealed surprised even me. Based on responses to survey questions, six out of 10 residents could be described as having depressive symptoms. Fifty-eight percent showed potential issues with PTSD. In a town hall meeting associated with the project, someone who works with the senior population shared that they felt some seniors were giving up. They did not feel like going on. They were just tired. That work reminded me, and continues to remind us, that there were not only losses with respect to physical structures and the loss of electricity and running water and challenges with our food supply, but those hurricanes brought tremendous emotional loss. So with each building recovered, we are recovering our hope. Now all St. Johnian seniors can look forward, once again, to their own space for enrichment and friendship.”

The socially distanced ceremony was hosted under a tent on the basketball court which is adjacent to the newly rebuilt senior center. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. lauded the property’s combination of facilities for young and old.

“Having centers that put together older people and younger people will do more for crime than any police force ever,” said Bryan. “I don’t think we’re in recovery. We’re more like in rehab now, because what we’re building back is bigger, better, and stronger than the Virgin Islands has ever seen. Projects like this show people that inch by inch, we’re going to build our community bigger, better, and bolder than before.”