November 16, 2023
ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS – In a ceremony held Wednesday, the VI Department of Health cut the ribbon on its newly constructed Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Building at the Knud Hansen Complex on St. Thomas, calling it a milestone in the department’s continuing effort to address health disparities and improve health equity with forward movement in disaster recovery.
The official ceremony marked the return of WIC to its home after being displaced following the devastating 2017 hurricanes. The WIC program in St. Thomas serves approximately 1,600 clients on St. Thomas. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for WIC in the Department of Health safeguards the health of low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age five who are at nutritional risk.
“Just over a year ago, we put shovels into the ground, right at this spot, to start the reconstruction of the WIC building, and we committed to completing this project on time – and we did,” said Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion. “We are excited about being able to welcome our mothers and young children through our doors once more. We hope they feel welcomed and cared for, because they are more than customers, they are family.”
Governor Albert Bryan Jr., Lt. Governor Tregenza A. Roach, Adrienne Williams-Octalien, Director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, Derek Gabriel, Commissioner of Public Works, and Eric Cusin, Vice President of J Benton Construction, the construction contractor, all provided remarks about the collaborative efforts to bring the reconstruction project to completion. The $4.2 million WIC Building is the first brand new construction to be completed in the disaster recovery effort, according to Commissioner Gabriel.
Both Governor Bryan and Lt. Governor Roach spoke of the Territory’s resiliency and building a new facility that serves mothers and children for generations to come.
The $4.2 million rebuild was made possible through a $6.3 million US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant awarded to the VI Health Department in August 2018 for the WIC program. The USDA funds all WIC programs in the country, and this award is pursuant to the authorities of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.
“This new state-of-the-art structure will provide a centralized location for participants of the WIC program and staff on the island of St. Thomas,” said Lizbeth Silbermann, Regional Administrator, Northeast Region, USDA-Food and Nutrition Services, in a prepared video statement. “The WIC clinic is colocated with one of its sister agencies – the Department of Human Services. This colocation will break down logistic barriers for participants of both the WIC and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program) programs. This one-stop model care will ensure access to the full suite of health and nutrition benefits afforded to them.”
Administrator Silbermann noted that the US Virgin Islands has the highest breastfeeding rate in the nation at 71 percent. Breastfeeding promotion is a hallmark of the WIC program.
VI Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett also provided prepared video remarks noting that she participated in the WIC program as a young mother and law student. Delegate Plaskett called the ribbon-cutting of the new WIC building “a pivotal chapter for the Virgin Islands.”
“(The USDA’s) generous grant demonstrates confidence not only in our program but commitment to support our most vulnerable,” Delegate Plaskett stated.
The newly rebuilt WIC Building on St. Thomas restored the physical building and replaced equipment, technology, and other infrastructure damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The new 5,200 square foot, state-of-the-art structure features a breastfeeding room, teaching kitchen, conference space, and play area for children visiting for appointments.
A special feature of the new facility is a vibrant mural created and painted by St. Croix-born artist Mark Milligan II, who currently resides in Hawaii. His artwork has been featured in museums, galleries, and cultural centers in the US.
The VI Department of Health is also reconstructing the WIC Building and the Charles Harwood Complex both on St. Croix.
St. Croix-born artist Mark Milligan II, (center left) with Governor Albert Bryan Jr., Lt. Governor Tregenza A. Roach, VI Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and her leadership team.