Youth Empowerment Project members and Miss BVI Anika Christopher, the author of this article, break ground on the new YEP centre on Virgin Gorda during a Saturday ceremony. (Photo: Provided)

Eleven-year-old Virgin Gorda resident Azariah George is no stranger to the Tortola-based Youth Empowerment Project, which has hosted several pop-up activities on her island.

Soon she’ll have a chance to get more involved with the non-profit organisation.

On Saturday, she emceed a ceremony launching the construction of a new YEP youth centre in Virgin Gorda’s Handsome Bay after four years of planning.

“As many of you may have guessed, this is my first groundbreaking ceremony, and I am most excited to know that we are getting our very own building,” she said.

During the event, Azariah shared the stage with dignitaries including Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, Health and Social Development Minister Vincent Wheatley, YEP Executive Director Stacy Mather, and billionaire donors Sir Richard Branson and Dr. Henry Jarecki.

“This shows the tenacity behind those who are involved in making sure that we were here today,” said Mr. Mather, who is also an opposition member and at-large representative in the House of Assembly.

The planned building is expected to be more than 3,000 square feet, with a homework area, a robotics lab, a computer lab, areas for culinary and hospitality training, and a dance and music room, among other amenities.

It will offer core programming similar to the Tortola YEP centre, which was established in 2007 and offers activities focused on health and wellness, sports and community service.

No estimated cost for the new centre has been made public, but organisers said they hope to complete it by late next year.

The Virgin Gorda programme is expected to target at least 100 children at a time.


Another speaker on Saturday was YEP graduate Chelsea Hodge, who now works in hospitality and gives back to the organisation by volunteering and assisting with its programming.

“For YEP, I’ll always say yep,” Ms. Hodge said. “That is the commitment many of us have made today.”

Mr. Mather explained that YEP has hosted its pop-up activities on the island since 2021.

“YEP is not new to Virgin Gorda,” he added.

Azariah, the emcee, said one of her favourites was the Easter programme.

“I loved the egg hunting that we had, and I loved the games that we played, like dog and bone,” she added.

A collaboration

The Virgin Gorda project is supported by various partners, and the broader YEP programme continues to be funded by its founder and primary sponsor, Dr. Jarecki and his family.

Additionally, the government donated the parcel of Crown land where the youth centre will be built, and the Sir Richard-backed Unite BVI Foundation is fundraising to ensure the building’s completion and to cover programming costs for the first three years, speakers said.

Dr. Jarecki’s son Andrew Jarecki, who spoke on behalf of the family, recounted how YEP got started in 2007.

“The question was, really, is it going to work, and the answer 20 years later, with over 8,000 kids touched by YEP’s programmes, is a resounding yes,” he said.

Sir Richard also gave brief remarks, as did Dr. Wheatley, who Mr. Mather described as the premier to make the most visits to the original YEP centre.

Culinary students

After the ceremony, attendees sampled refreshments prepared by culinary students from a pilot YEP-affiliated project called Learning, Earning and Achieving Dreams, or LEAD BVI.

“YEP runs for children aged 7 and a half to 15 years old, and LEAD BVI picks up at age 15 to 18 to introduce students to the hospitality industry at the management level,” explained Chef Mike Bogans.