Jan. 31, 2004 — For Mikel Resto, a fifth-grader at the Michael Kirwan Elementary School, learning has been somewhat of a challenge. The 10-year-old, whose first language is Spanish, struggles to learn in a primarily English-speaking classroom setting.
But for the past year, Resto has seen much improvement in her schoolwork, thanks to the help of the University of the Virgin Islands' Family Life Center.
Now in its fourth year, the Family Life Center is a program that seeks to "reduce violent and antisocial behaviors" in at-risk children between the ages of 9 and 12. The center does this through the students' academic, personal, career, cultural and recreational development, as well as family bonding. Its motto: "Working together to make a better community."
The program started in 2000 after the university received funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health. Dr. Doris Batiste wrote the original grant request.
UVI's Family Life Center is one of several such programs in historically black colleges across the nation.
In its first two years, the center focused on working with at-risk students from the New Horizon School and Kirwan Elementary. However, in the 2002-03 school year, the program focused its efforts exclusively on Kirwan students.
Students are selected based on a list of more than 20 risk factors, including tardiness, anger management problems, living in single parent household and living in a neighborhood plagued with violence and drug activities.
"Children with four or more of the risk factors are considered potential participants, but we cannot admit them into the program without parental consent," said program evaluator Stevie Henry.
Currently 36 students from Kirwan Elementary are enlisted in the program. Eleven UVI students serve as mentors, along with professional instructors and personnel from the FLC.
Pricilla Etienne, an FLC mentor and sophomore business administration student, said she enjoys working with the students. "I think it is important to help out the children of the community," Etienne said. "And it's also enriching for yourself."
Etienne assists the students with homework, reading and Tae Kwon Do sessions.
Dahlia Stridiron, a prevention specialist at the center, said more programs of this type are needed for students in other schools.
"If you can touch one, you've done your work," Stridiron said. "We've seen positive changes in the kids, and that's rewarding."
Clearly, Stridiron and others are touching the lives of Resto and the other children involved with the center.
"I love my mentor Ms. Stridiron," Resto said in perfect English. "She's fun." Resto said she enjoys the center's programs, like Tae Kwon Do and the Steel Pan Orchestra, of which she is a part. Her friend and classmate Natacha Martinez, who is also learning how to play pan, nods her head in agreement. "I like steel pan."
The FLC's Steel Pan Orchestra has played at various local functions, allowing the students to share what they have learned with the community. They have even produced a Christmas album.
Martinez said being in FLC has helped her because she is getting better grades.
Lurden Feliz, 11, who is also part of the FLC's English as a Second Language group, said, "The program is fun. My favorite thing is steel pan." Feliz added that she enjoys the time she spends with her mentors.
As for 10-year-old Bradley Antoine, he is just happy that he has some place to go after school to do fun things with his friends. "They help us with our homework and give us lots of activities to do," Bradley said, while playing a board game with some of his buddies.
Recently, the FLC received a $30,000 increase in its funding from OMH and Central State University. This grant increase will see the program through for the next three years.
On Friday the program also received $2,500 from FirstBank of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In addition, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, Peacemakers Soccer Club, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and Trust Asset Management LLP made contributions to the FLC. Representatives from each of the donor agencies were at a luncheon in their honor on Friday.
Dr. Laxley Rodney, principal investigator from CSU's Family and Community Violence Prevention Program, said he is pleased with the program's progress at UVI. "We're looking forward for great things to continue happening with UVI," Rodney said.
FLC Director Carmen Rogers-Green told the various donor representatives Friday that she was "grateful" for their assistance.
"This program is an excellent program, but it is like a drop in the ocean," Green said. "I hope this would serve as a catalyst that would encourage more programs like this in our community."
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