Earlier this year, HOVENSA, the U.S. Virgin Island’s largest private employer announced the closing of its St. Croix oil refinery. More than 2,000 people lost their jobs, pushing the territory’s unemployment above 12 percent. Compared to the national average of 8.9 percent unemployment, it’s easy to see why the Virgin Islanders are bracing themselves for stormy weather ahead.
Puerto Rico, not far away, is suffering from economic troubles of its own.
Region 2 Administrator Joyce Thomas, my special Assistant Laura Irizarry and I recently visited the Islands, where more than four million U.S. citizens reside, on a fact finding mission to see if there were ways we could work with the local governments to provide some needed relief.
We were truly impressed by the resilience of the people and leaders we encountered. From USVI Governor John Percy deJongh to Department of Human Services Commissioner Christopher E. Finch to former HOVENSA employees, as well as numerous government officials and community-based service providers, everyone I spoke with was looking to a better future. They are not looking for a handout from the federal government; they are asking for a partner in their efforts to protect the well-being of those most vulnerable.
From St. Thomas and St. Croix, we went to Puerto Rico, where almost half (45 percent) of its 3.9 million residents live below the U.S. poverty level, and 15 percent of the labor force is unemployed. Last year, more than 1,000 Puerto Ricans were killed on the Island; drugs were behind more than 70 percent of these deaths. Head Start providers have been chased from housing projects by drug traffickers who no longer wanted them intruding on their territory.
First Lady Lucé Vela, Secretary of the Family Yenitsia Irizarry and their work team showed a passionate commitment to improving the quality of life and well-being of Puerto Rican children and families. Their dedication to facilitating adoptions, to strengthening parent/children relationships through child care and Head Start, reminds me that it is much better to build a strong child than to repair a broken man.
During our week in the Caribbean, we met with dedicated men and women who are making a difference. At the Queen Louise Home for Children, in St. Croix, we spoke with women who have worked for 20, 30, 40 years with foster and disabled kids. We saw disabled young women who have not known another home other than the one provided by the Lutheran Social Services.
In Arecibo, we met young men who are currently volunteering their services and resources at the transitional living facility where they once resided. In Dorado, I was reminded that a Head Start program is not only brick and mortar, and that success cannot be defined by state-of-the-art facilities. Success must be defined by a vibrant community, where children, parents and teachers, work alongside local, state and federal officials to get the job done.
It is easy for us to forget that these are U.S. citizens who are affected by our decisions. Important decisions cannot be made from 30,000 feet or 1,590 miles away. We need real time with people who are affected by our policies, before moving decisions forward.
My message to Governor deJongh, Commissioner Finch, First Lady Vela, Family Secretary Irizarry, Mayor Lopez and everyone we met with in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico was straightforward and simple: Where allowable by law and regulation, ACF will work with them to find flexibility within existing programs to provide necessary assistance for those most in need.