March 17, 2002 – Take the attention span of the average teen-ager, multiply by 800, add a discussion on sexual abstinence and mix well. That was the task before Sen. Lorraine Berry and members of the Adolescent Health Program as they presented the 8th annual Youth Symposium on Saturday.
Over the years, the symposiums have addressed a variety of issues affecting young people. For the last three years, the focus has been on saying no to casual sex.
According to one of the symposium organizers, the consequences of doing otherwise is costing the territory financially and socially. "We had an increase in teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections coming into the health clinics," Elsie Chinnery said. "We had to mount a prevention campaign to the tune of 'no sex before marriage'."
Some who have attended this series of forums say the number of young people attending has grown each successive year. Those who made their way to Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on Saturday faced a morning panel of their peers — junior and senior high school students who offered a series of role-play scenarios, poems, and skits. "None will say sexual abstinence is easy," Acquanette Brown, a presenter from Sts. Peter and Paul School, said. "Everyone wants to be with the popular crowd."
But getting the message across was tough. Speakers appealed to students seated toward the back of the huge hotel ballroom to give them their undivided attention. By mid-morning, a few were dozing, heads down on the banquet tables. The graphic slides on venereal disease drew a few "Eeew's," but many turned down the invitation to move up to the front of the room for a closer view.
More attentive were some of the teachers also seated in the audience. Felicia Alexander peered out over the young faces, searching for her students from Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School. She said she has been sharing news accounts with them "about a lot of the rapes that have been going on in the community." She is concerned that "they're getting their information from the street, not from their parents."
The most engaging approach of the morning came from the keynote speaker, Earl Massey, executive director of the California-based Survivors in Recovery. Passing out balls of yarn in many colors throughout the cavernous meeting space, he asked students to hold on to one end and toss them to others in the room. Each person who caught the yarn was to do the same.
As the exercise went on for two minutes, audience participation was intense. Yarn sailed through the air, intertwining and forming a complex web. As the giggling died down and Civil Air Patrol students used scissors to snip the strands and scoop them into plastic bags, Massey delivered his knockout punch. "Those of you who are standing, holding the yarn, this is what we call transmission. This is how disease is spread from island to island and person to person. This is how AIDS works."
The theme for this year's symposium was "Shattered Dreams vs. Achieved Dreams." Chinnery said the Adolescent Health Program receives federal funds for community outreach to youths to promote sexual abstinence, which is why the symposium has focused on that topic for three years in a row.
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