Right now, a vast number of people everywhere are battling mental health issues and many are heightened due to the pandemic, protests and general state of the world. Here, on St. John, these issues are further intensified as we enter another hurricane season with ongoing PTSD from the 2017 storms lingering and very limited access to local mental health care services. This is a story of a woman who was raised here, worked hard to realize and pursue her dreams and has committed to being a part of the solution to this problem locally….
Nisha Jones spent the majority of her childhood between St. Thomas and St. John. She was raised in the housing projects on St. Thomas and was educated in the public school system. Although her home was a happy one, crime in the area was prevalent and she grew up with a clear picture of what turf wars and domestic violence looked like.
“I never felt unsafe,” she told me. “I just didn’t understand it.”
When she was in elementary school, her mother started the path to a nursing degree that was never accomplished. After completing some course work at the University of the Virgin Islands, she, along with her children, traveled to the states where they would stay with family and she would continue her education.
Nisha completed 1st through 4th grades between Maryland and New York before her mother decided it best to relinquish her academic pursuits in order to return home to St. Thomas where she could work and better care for her family.
Nisha’s father is a Varlack and an entrepreneur. If you’re very familiar with the inner workings of St. John, you may understand that these two words go hand in hand. Nisha refers to her father, James, as having an entrepreneurial gene, much like his father. Her grandfather, Rodney Varlack, started the passenger ferry service and their family still owns and operates it today.
She remembers fondly that her father always had “One truck. One good working truck.”
He was always upgrading or fixing them. The rotation of trucks over the years of her youth was her family’s livelihood. Her dad was a one-man operation and the delivery of building supplies and lumber to St. John was a large part of it.
During her Junior High School years at Addelita Cancryn, she would ride along on these deliveries. She fondly remembers visiting family, eating shrimp at Hercule’s and keeping her dad company on his St. John trips. He would pick her up after school and take the barge over to make his rounds.
As a child, she remembers distinctly thinking that everything on St. John had to be imported. So when she later wandered down her own path through high school, the National Guard, undergraduate, and then graduate, coursework; she knew that she wanted to do something on St. John that mattered and lived here.
Nisha remembers when she was growing up that she didn’t necessarily have the same “first world” set of worries that other children have. When you look at children who grow up in areas of crime and poverty, in comparison to those who are raised in a more privileged and protected home, you might see fears about where the next meal is coming from or their own physical safety. A higher education and career path was far from what was on her mind in her youth.
“Coming from living in a housing project, the initial goal was just to graduate high school,” she said.
When she started high school at Eudora Kean, near Red Hook, she recalls several instances that eventually led to her later development. A guidance counselor provided her with an SAT voucher that would allow her to take the test for free. Another mentor, now Colonel Sally Petty who also serves with the Virgin Islands National Guard, pushed her to join JROTC and subsequently the VI National Guard. Nisha’s service to her country would eventually inspire her career path and pay for her college education.
“There were enough good people along the way that kept me in line,” she remembers. “I had potential, but it was untapped.“
After graduating high school in 2002, Nisha joined the National Guard and, after training, was immediately deployed to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. While there, she worked in the detention center as a military police woman and completed Air Bridge missions to Afghanistan and Turkey.
She stopped her thought process laughing, “I don’t know how much of this is classified.”
She returned from the military and enrolled at Florida Atlantic University where her brother was in attendance. He was pursuing a Mechanical Engineering degree and she began her undergraduate coursework towards one in Civil Engineering. Both of these paths were selected, not out of interest, but with the intent of returning and working in the family business.
It was in her first years of academia that Nisha found her niche. In realizing her disinterest in her chosen coursework and remembering the mental health challenges of her brothers and sisters in arms during her deployment, she changed her major and began pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work . She graduated with that in 2008 and completed her Masters in 2009.
“I was intellectually stimulated in college,” she said. “I developed dreams that I didn’t have in my childhood. I found confidence…My own voice.”
But she reminds us, “That’s not where I started.
In 2015, Nisha was back in the Virgin Islands working with the VI National Guard and was called out to a critical incident with a service member. After the dust had settled on the situation, she recalls it being a serious issue for them to find someone on St. John to do a wellness check on this individual.
“Who is our point of contact in this remote community?” she wondered.
She decided that a mental health service was NOT something that St. John should have to import.
“There’s a critical threshold,” she told me, “For someone who is suffering with depression or addiction….there’s a window of time when that person says ‘YES.’”
And that person who is suffering shouldn’t have to search for the solution or get on a boat in order to take the first step.
With this in mind, she returned to the states in order to work towards a Doctorate in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. Now, Nisha is completing that coursework and has returned to St. John and established her own practice in Mongoose Junction. Her thesis study is on the impact of climate change on socioeconomic disadvantaged communities; a case study on Hurricanes Irma & Maria. Having lived in the housing projects on St. Thomas during Marylin and Hugo and knows first-hand how difficult a “new normal” can be without the financial and physical resources to rebuild your own life.
Nisha spoke of the notoriety of St. John as a vacation destination with pristine scenery, but not many people are aware of the “different story there is to be told about living everyday life.”
“There’s more to see…The everyday struggles. And a resilient community,” she said. “It’s not every day you get a Virgin Islander’s standpoint on these issues.”
Her goal with her practice here is to promote over all well-being as a lifestyle and build resiliency. To look at and attempt to heal the whole person and their physical, mental and spiritual health. To help those who cannot help themselves and are barely treading water through it. And that analogy is from where she draws the name of her practice, Buoyant Living.