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'TOUGH LOVE' RETREAT'S PROOF IS ITS POPULARITY

Even with a couple of tropical storms on the horizon, it was a good weekend for families from throughout the territory who were gathered at Lameshur Bay on St. John for an annual retreat for families at risk.
The annual retreat is sponsored by the U.S. Attorney's Office. About a dozen volunteers from that office, the Police Department, the V.I. National Guard, the National Park Service and the Human Services Department spend the weekend in the company of some of their clients.
These are families with problems of various sorts. Some parents are struggling with wayward children. Many of the youths have absentee fathers. For some, substance abuse is a problem. Others are on the verge of experience with the criminal justice system, or have already gone that route.
This year, for the first time, fathers – two of them – took part in the retreat. The weekend approach was one of tough love, with a balance between "tough" and "love."
Housing Authority Police Officer David Cannonier told a group of preteens not to expect anything but toughness from him if they meet on the street in a criminal scenario. "I don't want to hear, ‘But Officer Cannonier, I know you,' if you're standing there with a gun in your hand or a knife in your hand," he told the youths.
His job is to make the arrest when a crime has occurred, Cannonier said. He pointed out that he, like many of his listeners, grew up in public housing, so he knows the risks and temptations of going astray.
As he spoke, one youngster, instead of paying attention, began playing with a pair handcuffs that had been passed around. By the time he caught Cannonier's attention, the boy had managed to clamp one cuff onto his own wrist. To get his attention back, the officer locked the other one onto the boy's chair.
A short distance away, under a spreading tamarind tree, drug counselor Desiree Lambertis told a group of adults of the need to send clear messages to their children about drug and alcohol use. She cautioned the parents that the people most likely to introduce drugs to their children are not strangers but friends and relatives.
It was a hard sell for parents who were unconvinced that recreational drinking and smoking are necessarily harmful. One of the fathers at the retreat said he would rather be open about his marijuana use than be hypocritical.
But lax attitudes on the part of parents about recreational use of controlled substances has contributed to a drop in the average age for the first use of drugs nationwide, Lambertis said. The average age of first-time experimental pot smoking is now between 8 and 9 years, she said.
"The Virgin Islands communities care, and it shows through what the agencies are doing, and it shows through the relationship of the parents," said Dr. Henry Braddock, former chief of the Health Department's Division of Mental Health. Braddock led two Saturday workshops on parenting with an emphasis on communication within the family.
Donations from the St. John Accommodations Council and the office of Delegate Donna Christian-Christensen helped make it possible for Braddock and other guest speakers to take part in the retreat.
In addition to taking part in group sessions, families attending the retreat also met to discuss their particular problems with counselors who work with them throughout the year. In the last two years, counselors said, it has not been unusual for clients to arrive at the retreat in the midst of a crisis in need of immediate response.
The intensity of such situations was not lost on the other families taking part. As the group gathered on Sunday afternoon to reflect on this year's experience, one youngster spoke about an incident that had been played out that weekend and how the child had related it to personal experience.
Some families left the retreat with promises of further follow-up because progress for them has been spotty.
After three years of relaxing and relating, both families and counselors say they have seen improvements in their relationshipsas a result of the retreats. Lynn Shaffel, a single mother of three, cited the positive impact on her sons, who were lacking in discipline.
"I was experiencing a lot of problems with my older son," she related, "and we came to Lameshur last year, and we received lots of different individual workshops which were very encouraging. They also gave us a lot of steps that we needed to follow up throughout the year."
The result, she said: "Both of my kids graduated and went to high school, and that was a big step for me."
Deputy U.S. Attorney Azekah Jennings said as the outcomes improve for some of the families, the demand for more accommodations at the retreat is growing.
"We know it has been quite successful, because the demand for the program has been greater than we're able to supply," Jennings said. "We have limited space, and each year the camp attendees who have been here before would like to come back and new families and agencies are anxious to get other people in."

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