Carolyn Keys and Jerry Weninger, members of the Interfaith Coalition, are trying to build peace and love on St. Croix as facilitators for the Alternatives to Violence Project. They have taken the project to Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility, housing communities and local schools offering conflict resolution skills.
“Our goal is to help people gain the skills to avoid conflicts nonviolently and to realize they have choices for nonviolence,” Keys says.
The AVP program is designed to improve self-esteem, strengthen communication skills, manage anger, let go of grudges, transform conflict and clarify values.
The project was started by Larry Apsey in 1975 in Green Haven Prison in Stormville, N.Y. It was a collaboration with the Quaker Project on Community Conflict in devising a prison workshop. AVP is a grassroots, all-volunteer program dedicated to reducing violence.
Keys, a Quaker and a retired social worker, first lived on St. Croix from 1970 to 1989. She worked in human and social services before moving to New Jersey two weeks before Hurricane Hugo hit. Keys did volunteer work with the Friends Peace Team using the AVP program working in Burundi and Rwanda in eastern Africa to heal conflicts caused from genocide.
The Friends Peace Team builds on Quaker experience combining practical and spiritual aspects of conflict resolution. It is a spirit-led organization to develop programs for peace building, trauma healing, reconciliation and to spread love.
When her term volunteering ended in 2002, she moved back to St. Croix and became a member of the Interfaith Coalition. The Interfaith Coalition is a group of people representing different faiths called to serve the needs of the community through education, service and advocacy.
Keys says she saw similarities in the communities in Africa and on St. Croix. She says suspicion and mistrust are endemic to the culture.
“I was in Africa two months and realized I needed to take AVP back to St. Croix,” Keys says. “People assume because St. Croix is a U.S. territory that everything is OK. I proposed the program to the Interfaith Coalition board and they said yes to it right away.”
In 2004 the first workshop was held. “We were able to start with very little funds,” Keys says. “We are mostly volunteers.” She added in 2005 they got a Community Grant for $1000 from FirstBank.
Volunteers have done workshops at the Youth Rehabilitation Center, The Village Partners in Recovery, housing communities, Positive Connections Alternative School, Elena Christian Junior High School, Alexander Henderson Elementary and Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School, to name a few. Keys said in 2010 they took the program to Her Majesties' Prison in St. Kitts.
In January 2011, after seven years of trying, they got the AVP program into Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility.
“Chief Gary Evans called and asked us if we would like to bring the program into the prison,” Keys says. “I told him, 'Yes. We would love to.'” She said 54 prisoners have gone through at least the basic workshop. There are nine prisoners who have completed the third level which is training for facilitators.
“The results are nothing short of wonderful,” Keys says. She says they are usually the long-term prisoners who have committed to peace.
The workshops are designed for participation from everyone. The workshops are 18 to 22 hours for three separate levels.
“We have fun and laughter playing games and we have deep emotional sharing times,” Keys says. “Participants improve self-esteem, strengthen communication skills, manage anger, let go of grudges and transform conflict. We all have the power within to possibly change a violent situation to a nonviolent situation.” Keys says people need to know there are nonviolent choices they can make.
She says boys on St. Croix need to know conflict isn't resolved with violence and aggression.
“Male kids are typically taught to be tough, strong and on top at all times,” Keys says. “Boys are pushed into violent behavior here.” She says boys are taught if they are hit to “knock em back” and told “Don't let him hit you.”
Keys says children also see violent behavior from their parents. “Parents have to respect children,” Keys says. “Children need to be loved not batted around. Parents here need more skills at nurturing.” She says to help local people gain those skills Weninger and other volunteers also provide community wide workshops.
Call Keys at 719-7805 to find out more about AVP or Interfaith Coalition, or to volunteer.