On Friday evening, January 18, 2019, Vernisha D. Hodge, a twelfth-grade student at the St. Thomas/St. John Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) School, was honored with seven other high school seniors during the Erev Shabbat Service, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas.
According to Karis George, English Teacher at the SDA School, every senior in the class was required to write an essay on the topic, “If I Could Change My Community or the World, What Would I Do?” The essays were read and considered by the school’s leadership team, which included the principal and the guidance counselor. The selection was based on academic performance, community service involvement, and overall character that best exemplifies the values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During morning chapel at the school, the announcement was made that Vernisha Hodge would represent the St. Thomas/St. John SDA School at the annual service honoring Dr. King, at the synagogue.
The synagogue, which is home to the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, is one of only three National Historical Landmarks on St. Thomas. It is unique as it features a sanctuary floor covered with sand. In addition, it has the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag and is the second oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere. It is here where the eight students from the senior class of each participating high school on St. Thomas and St. John arrived with their families, principals, and friends to take part in this annual ceremony. The Shabbat Service began with the lighting of the Sabbath Candle and a blessing for the Sabbath. Songs were sung and prayers were said as the congregation welcomed the Sabbath on Crystal Gade.
At the conclusion of the regular service, the 2019 Martin Luther King Scholarship Awards Ceremony began. Dr. Stuart Wechter and Brook Robin presented the history and reflection of the event. Each student was recognized by Rabbi Michael Feshbach and presented his/her essay orally to the congregation. Vernisha’s introduction in the booklet read: “Vernisha D. Hodge has been chosen by St. Thomas-St. John Seventh-day Adventist School as this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Award recipient. Vernisha is an honor student, self-motivated and driven to excel. Ms. Hodge went on a Student Mission trip to Temoaya, Mexico, where she participated in painting the Foshte Ju Ku Rehabilitation Center, building a playground for the children of the area, teaching English as a Second language to children and adults, distributing backpacks to needy students in poverty-stricken area schools, and taught women how to prepare meals using Soy Protein. Vernisha volunteered at the Queen Louise Home for the Aged and The Sugar Estate Senior Resident/Independent Senior Living Home.” A certificate and a scholarship in the amount of $500 was awarded to each senior.
Tregenza A. Roach, Esq., Lt. Governor of the US Virgin Islands, was the keynote speaker for the awards presentation. In his brief address, he congratulated the students for being involved in community service and encouraged them to continue to live a life of service wherever they go.
After the final prayers and songs, the event concluded; and as the students, congregants, and other guests interacted with each other, Lt. Governor Roach greeted Vernisha and made it a point to let her know that he was an elementary student at the St. Thomas/St. John Seventh-day Adventist School when classes were held in the back-rooms of the St. Thomas SDA Church, now known as the City Church.
At a reception at the Lilienfeld House after the ceremony, the students, their family and other attendees greeted and interacted with each other, with members of the Hebrew Congregation, and with several notable government officials including Senators (Janelle Sarauw, Donna Frett-Gregory and Dwayne Degraff) and a former Delegate to Congress, Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen.