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Rotary Symposium Works on Solutions to Territory's Persistent Problems

Oct. 13, 2008 — During a symposium on the environment, homelessness and youth Monday at the University of the Virgin Islands, members of the six Rotary Clubs of the St. Thomas-St. John district spent a day looking for solutions to combat three serious issues plaguing the community.
"We thought we really ought to go out into the community and look at a wide spectrum of topics, and ask the people in the community who deal with those areas how they see Rotary fitting into the challenges they have," said Diana White, district governor nominee and a member of the Rotary Club of Charlotte Amalie.
Areas that interest all of the clubs were determined by a survey taken of the clubs by White and Assistant Governor Don Chandler of the Rotary Club St. Thomas. A joint effort by all the Rotary Clubs in the area brought together groups of panelists specializing in each of the three areas discussed at Monday's symposium.
The Environment
The environmental portion of the day focused on recycling. The panelists emphasized that unless facilities are established that can reuse the recycled material, the recycling efforts won't have effective results.
"The degradation of our environment is taking place right before our very eyes," said Sean LaPlace, a 15-year-old Charlotte Amalie High School student who advocates recycling. "We have placed the noose around the goose that is laying our golden egg: tourism."
LaPlace's concerns drew attention to the lack of recycling of commercial waste, which is not regulated by the government.
The V.I. government currently has no programs in place to facilitate recycling. There is potential for grants to private recycling programs, said May Adams Cornwall, executive director of the V.I. Waste Management Authority. The authority is also creating a voluntary compliance program, asking generators of waste to recycle their products. It will be the consumer's job to enforce this by only purchasing from businesses complying with the program. The longterm goal of the government is to convert waste to energy, but with no recycling facilities, Cornwall suggests personal stewardship as the most effective short-term solution.
"The landfills are the only form of disposal in the Virgin Islands, period," she said.
Benita Martin Samuel, project manager for the St. Thomas chapter of the Recycling Associations of the Virgin Islands, discussed the group's focus on the reuse of materials, since there are no recycling plants. The ultimate goal is finding an end process other than the landfill for these recycled materials.
The panelists on homelessness discussed solutions to the problems of the two main groups of homeless individuals in the Virgin Islands. Some homeless individuals fit under the chronic definition, suffering from a mental illness and/or substance abuse, while others do not fit these criteria, such as healthy people in a dire financial situation.
A 26-member board of government and private organizations is creating a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the Virgin Islands. The board has determined the most effective method to be finding housing for the individuals and then working with them to maintain that housing.
"When given a chance, it works," said Brenda Walwyn of the government Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness. "It has been successful in the States, and we're going to try it here."
Under the plan, outreach teams of professionals will bring assistance to individuals on the street, and then housing will be found for them. Payment for the housing will be provided either through joint programs with the government or through leases by other organizations, such as Rotary. A team of specialists will work with them to help maintain their living situation. A major obstacle to this program is a lack of available housing.
For those homeless individuals with substance-abuse problems and/or mental illnesses, rehabilitation will be necessary before a permanent home for them can be established. Currently there are no rehabilitation facilities available. This is yet another obstacle to the program.
Opportunities for short-term involvement were also presented. Project Homeless Connect is a one-day event where homeless-support organizations offer immediate assistance to homeless people.
Homelessness advocate Maria Ferreras suggests small daily acts to alleviate immediate suffering, such as bringing individuals food or basic first-aid care, as a means by which Rotary members can help.
In addressing the core problems facing young people and the rate of dropouts in the territory, presenter Carol Henneman, executive director of the Board of Education, didn't pull any punches.
"Families in the Virgin Islands are not even dysfunctional," she said." We have families that have no function, just people who live at the same address."
Henneman is a parent and former teacher.
"Our children are communicating, just not with their mouths — but with guns and money," she said.
The communication range is short, she said: It goes from "altercation to 'you must die.'"
"They have to put the guns back in the holsters and start using words to solve problems," Henneman said.
Part of the problem is that the territory's schools have failed to grow with the times or meet the changing needs of "the new student."
There are a number of institutional problems that have contributed to the problem as well, she said. For one thing, there was a mandate that children between kindergarten and 6th grade could not be held back. So they end up at the ninth-grade level four years behind in reading skills, Henneman said.
Frustrated, they drop out. But, she said, they drop out and "then stand in front of the gate."
"What does that tell you?" she said. "They want to be inside."
Lack of a meaningful vocational-education program, coupled with no remedial programs at the ninth-grade level, leads to the greatest number of dropouts at the critical juncture between junior and senior high school, Henneman said.
Rotary members and others can make a difference in outcomes via mentoring, after-school programs, sports-participation incentives and early-intervention programs — especially for the boys, Monday's presenters said repeatedly.
Addressing the theme of changing with the times, Nathan Clark, executive director of the V.I. Boy Scouts, said his institution has had to come up with all kinds of new programs to keep the interest of boys — especially older boys.
A few of the things that have worked to stem the tide of dropouts from the scouts are high-adventure, survivor-type programs, physical challenges and even a co-ed group.
"You have to excite them," Clark said. It hasn't completely stopped the drifting away, he said, but "we have plateaued."
Many young people are "living in toxic homes," said Dilsa Capdeville, director of Kidscope, a program developed initially to protect and assist children living with abuse.
"Problems are more sophisticated than they used to be," Capdeville said.
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