DeVoses Wege Back Island School

February 11, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — At first glance, and maybe even after a second take, most might not think that Grand Rapids could possibly have a business connection with Cape Eleuthera in the balmy Bahamas that isn’t part of the hospitality industry.

But a business bond without a tourism tie does exist between River City and the remote island, just east of Nassau — a link that has thrived for the past five years.

DP Fox Ventures owners Dan and Pamella DeVos, the entire DeVos family and the Wege Foundation, headed by local businessman and environmentalist Peter B. Wege, all have had a part in creating and strengthening that bond through the support they have given The Island School — a hands-on ecological learning center for high school students on Cape Eleuthera.

School director Chris Maxey, who founded the center in 1998 with his wife Pam, said the DeVoses handed over 16 lush and beautiful acres for them and their staff to teach from, and that DP Fox has been the “business brain” behind the school as Dan DeVos and DP Fox COO & Executive Vice President David Green serve on the school’s board of directors.

Maxey said the Wege Foundation helped install a hybrid solar- and wind-powered system that pumps enough electricity to run the campus and provide surplus energy to the rest of the island. He also noted that the foundation has given the school grants, including the second-largest award in the school’s short history.

Forty high school juniors and seniors are accepted into The Island School program for each of its two semesters every year. The students learn about how limited natural resources are and they explore better ways to power everyday life. Maxey said the school’s workload pushes the kids past their comfort zone, which forces them to learn on their own.

“Often, their questions are answered with questions,” he said, while here recently meeting with DP Fox executives and addressing a Wege Foundation ecological seminar.

So far, seven students from the Grand Rapids metro area have experienced The Island School firsthand. Four have attended from East Grand Rapids, two from Forest Hills and one from City High School. Students receive grants to attend, but must raise matching funds on their own before they are accepted. Maxey said the goal is to produce younger versions of Peter Wege, people who pursue sustainable ecological solutions that are economically sound.

“They’ve got 60 years ahead of them to learn and promote smart living practices.”

An ecological and sustainability summit took place last weekend at the school, a good setting for such a gathering because the school has to be energy self-sufficient due to its location. Powering industrial plants, waste management, and food production were a few of the summit’s topics. John Todd and David Orr, experts in their ecological fields, were just two of the presenters.

“It’s big on how we have to educate people because our educational system is heading us toward a disaster,” Maxey said of the summit agenda. “We’re more geared to production and consumption without looking to sustain the system.”

But Maxey said the summit was also another step in the school’s ongoing march to establish a research center that would improve energy techniques across the board, from heating water with solar power to using bio-diesel as fuel.

Students at the school already make fuel that powers the island’s vehicles. They take used cooking oil from the Grand Princess, the Caribbean cruise ship owned by the DP Fox Princess Cruise Line, and refine it into bio-diesel fuel.

“Our main product is young people, who go off in the world and really look to make a difference,” he said. “They get back home and they talk to their parents about composting and conserving energy. They talk to their schools on how they can make a difference.”

Maxey sees these students as becoming corporate leaders and government officials who someday will change attitudes toward consumption and raise the practice of conservation. But the next ecological revolution for Maxey has naturalists and environmentalists joining with businesses to create better lives for people and profits for companies.

“When you design a building, the way wastes are recycled can save a lot of money. In that process, the amazing thing is that a company can save millions of dollars when they think about how they use energy, what they throw away, how they can recycle products, and how they can change a client through the corporate relationship,” he said.

The Lawrenceville School, a prestigious high school near Princeton, N.J., is the academic backer of The Island School. The Maxeys taught at Lawrenceville for seven years before they started an aquaculture research project in 1996 on the island, which was the forerunner of The Island School.

Chris Maxey, a Philadelphia native, earned his master’s degree in marine resource management from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science after serving six years as an officer with the Navy SEALs.

Although located in what many would see as Paradise, Maxey said Cape Eleuthera is far from being one. The island’s 9,000 residents have struggled since tourism has dropped off, so another goal of the school is to create sustainable jobs for them. But despite their poverty, Maxey sees the island people as being among the most generous he has ever met.

“They are really in a country setting where they don’t have much, but they will give you whatever they have. No one is anonymous. They know who The Island School people are and we know all of them,” he said.

“It’s also a great place for an idealist like me because we can have a pretty profound effect on how people live, learn and interact with the environment on this island.”           

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