July 30, 2006 — While the economic state of the territory may be gradually improving, there are still various societal ills that need to be addressed, several community members and government officials said at the Family Resource Center's annual meeting, held over the weekend at the Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas.
Some of the issues discussed during the event were the increasing levels of crime in the territory, the high percentage of single-parent households, the sharp rise in the number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases and the number of students not attending school.
"We keep trying to tell the vendors and business owners not to entertain the students while classes are going on, for example," Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, one of the event's featured speakers, said. "If they weren't there, the students would have no choice but to be in school. The same with the taxi drivers–if students weren't able to catch a ride with them, then there would be no other choice. They would have nowhere to go but to class."
While many residents agreed that there is no one way to solving such problems, they discussed a number of steps that could be taken in order to improve the territory's quality of life–including offering economic incentives to locals, collaborating as a community and offering educational programs to both students and adults on a range of issues.
One such activity, called the Family and Youth Crisis Intervention Program, has recently been developed between the Family Resource Center and the Education Department, Sandra Hodge-Benjamin, the center's executive director said. During the meeting, Hodge-Benjamin explained that the program's goal is to strengthen the family by offering counseling and peer activities for both children and parents.
Dr. Gregory McGriff, the program's director, added that many students are referred to the program through their school counselors. "The children come in and they begin by working in peer groups. The parents do the same, and then they come together for joint counseling sessions. We teach parents how to communicate with their children, especially those mothers who are raising the children by themselves, who have to work two jobs and are stressed out by the time they come home," he said.
McGriff added that approximately 98 percent of the students enrolled in the program come from single-parent households.
He said many children are also in the "beginning stages of substance abuse" or are starting to display a variety of violent behaviors. "We talk to the students, and they tell us about many of the issues that are coming up in the schools," he said. "So we really focus in on the things that are bothering them and offer a range of activities like teaching them about computer science and art, or languages and cultural literacy."
McGriff also spearheads a Saturday program for males at the center on St. Thomas called "Sankofu Rites of Passage."
During the meeting, Michael and Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone–another speaker featured during the event–also emphasized the importance of giving students a good education, along with improving economic opportunities for Virgin Islanders to help "bridge the gap between social classes."
"Economic issues are at the root of our problems," Malone said. "And the bottom line is that our families don't have the resources to take care of themselves. Somehow, we missed connecting the dots between our residents and the job opportunities."
Malone, a champion for vocational education within the territory, stressed that more training in local industries be provided for both students and adults. "We have to make sure that our residents are qualified enough to get a good job," he said. "Many of them don't even know how to fill out an application. This is where we, the government and the community as a whole need to bridge the gap."
He also suggested that senators adequately fund the Family Resource Center, whose St. Thomas facility is in need of a new roof and electrical repairs.
After the meeting, Malone and Michael said that there should also be more of a link between economics and education. "We really have to get the message out there, tell students that once you have a good education, anything number of things can happen," Michael said. "And we also need to make sure our adult community knows that there's something out there for them too. We have programs, for example, at our Raphael O. Wheatley Skill Center on St. Thomas, at the University of the Virgin Islands and at the Career and Technical Institute on St. Croix."
Michael also said that community leaders, along with parents, should begin to be aware of their own behavior, and suggested that a radio program be established for children and parents to listen to.
During the meeting, members of the Family Resource Center also elected Mary Gleason and Polly Watts to their board of directors. Kali Richardson was also elected as board president; she is replacing Jose Raul Carrillo.
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