Olivia Walton

Frederiksted native Olivia Walton, center, is coming home from North Carolina to be St. Croix Educational Association’s first full-time, on-staff environmental educator.

Olivia Walton grew up in Frederiksted a self-described “water baby.” But if not for the financial assistance she received to attend private school, she says, she might never have dove deeper to explore below the ocean’s surface.

Today, Walton is packing her bags in North Carolina to come home to the St. Croix Educational Association (SEA), where she will be the group’s first full-time environmental educator. Her goal: “To make sure every single child on St. Croix has access to some environmental experience before they graduate.

“That is my top priority, she said, “to reach people who are being missed.”

Walton credits her mother with raising her to love the outdoors and giving her a snorkel. As a child, it never occurred to her that other children might go to the beach and simply stand in the water because they didn’t know how to swim.

Attending Good Hope Country Day School on a scholarship, she was able to take the school’s scuba diving elective. Soon, she was working at Salt River Dive shop on weekends.

“That was my more-formal entry into scuba and the water,” Walton said.

Walton met her new employer, SEA Acting Executive Director Jennifer Valiulis, at a high school career program.

“I worked for DPNR as a wildlife biologist at the time, and Olivia spent a week with our division. One of those days was with me,” Valiulis said. “I definitely remembered her as someone especially interested and mature.”That meeting happened years ago. Like many young Crucians, Walton left for the mainland and college, studying conservation and environmental science at University of New Haven and Cornell University.

It was then, working on an environmental education project in the Bahamas, that Walton says she began to appreciate what local children were missing.

“Most environmental programs are elective in schools,” she said. “The children had not been exposed to ecological information about their own island. Yet they are the people who should be most involved. It opened my eyes to the lack of access I only dimly saw on St. Croix.”

Working with primary school children, she developed a program that could be incorporated in the academic curriculum. In Detroit, she created another program, coordinating summer workshops for 200 children.

The North American Association for Environmental Education recognized Walton last year as one of its “30 under 30” leaders.

“It’s everywhere in the field of environmental education,” she said. “The people who are most environmentally impacted are the least engaged.”

At SEA, meanwhile, Valiulis and the staff had rebuilt the office destroyed in the 2017 hurricanes and after getting by with contract educators, the group was ready to fill a permanent position. Walton’s name came up.

“After talking to her, we realized her interests in environmental education were the same as ours. Making sure to engage the entire community was exactly what our goals were,” Valiulis said.

“We’ve chatted a little about ‘dream’ programs,” Walton said. “Jen is very much in line with my desire to make sure every student has access.”

A haiku on the North American Association for Environmental Education’s 30-under-30 profile of Walton gives a clue to what SEA’s new educator is about:

Teach them to love Her

for tomorrow she is theirs

We have but one Earth.

— Contact Patricia Borns at 340-714-9104 or email pborns@dailynews.vi.