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Health Department Holds Healthy Lifestyle Conversations with VI Youth

CHRISTIANSTED — Providing young Virgin Islanders with the guidance and resources they need to live the healthiest life possible is a mission that Catherine Arnold Lewis, the Director of the U.S.V.I. Department of Health’s Chronic Disease Division takes seriously.

To achieve her mission, Director Lewis organized two community health events to reach out to the most vulnerable populations; the V.I.’s youth. Her presentations were aimed specifically at 13- to 18-year-old Virgin Islanders.

On hand for each event were health, education and counseling experts who shared personal stories and conducted teen-centered focus groups on risky behaviors, healthy lifestyles, and building healthy relationships.

Tarik McMillan, a Mental Health Counselor and St. Croix native conducted focus groups as part of the outreach effort aimed at V.I. juveniles. While the discussions were intended to provide students with tips and tools to help them navigate some of life’s challenges, both sessions ended up being a learning experience for everyone involved; the students, DOH staff and the expert partners alike.

McMillan intended his discussion to provide students with a safe environment where they could have an uninhibited conversation about personal experiences. At the same time, McMillan wove life skill information and tips into the discussion so that students could understand they had options and don’t have to succumb to intimidation, coercion or bullying that is so common today.

“No,” states McMillan, “Is a complete sentence. You don’t have to give a reason why you feel some way or don’t want to do something. Your response should be respected as your complete response.” ‘Unfortunately,” continued McMillan, “Especially with the issue of consent, people will try to wear you down and keep asking you for reasons why you are responding a certain way. They do this because they don’t respect your answer. They think if they keep asking you, you’ll change your decision.”

Boundaries, according to McMillan, are yet another sensitive area. They are different for everyone. According to McMillan, “What one person may be comfortable with isn’t necessarily the same limitation or restriction that another person would find acceptable. However, once someone indicates what their boundaries are, others should accept and respect those declarations as part of building a healthy relationship between the two individuals.”

McMillan indicated that, ironically the two group discussions couldn’t have been more different. The St. Croix session was made up of mostly females while the St. Thomas session was comprised of just male participants. Their issues and experiences were strikingly unalike.

On St. Croix, for instance, the female participants shared stories of the first time they experienced being the object of a “cat call.” The sole male participant in the group although the same age and from the same neighborhood, was shocked by what he heard and felt puzzled and disassociated by their stories. According to McMillan, the young man was unaware that that type of activity was going on and was taken aback upon hearing the stories from several young women.

Revealed to McMillan during a sidebar conversation during the St. Croix event was alarming information on a disturbing trend which could place young, inexperienced individuals at substantial risk. One student related a story about someone being taken to Point Udall and given the option, “sex or walk home”.

Point Udall is an isolated location on the far end of St Croix. It is a long way from homes or businesses, has no street lightening and oftentimes no cell phone reception. The long walk home from that area would be very daunting and dangerous experience. It makes sense that given that threatening situation a young person might feel they have no option.

On St. Thomas, the male group focused on issues not necessarily related to sexual issues but instead on not having their decisions respected by their peers. The young men referenced experiences they had online, especially with cyber games.

Sheelene Gumbs, Crisis Counselor of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix noted that clients to her office are currently experiencing greater numbers of cases involving cyber bullying, stalking, revenge porn and an array of other cyber-related assaults. “The world is changing and there is a great deal of cyber activities and crimes that are placing individuals, young and old, at substantial risk. Getting information to the public about how to protect themselves is the key to helping prevent such instances.” The Women’s Coalition was established in 1981.

The Department of Health is making a tremendous effort to reach each age group and provide tips and guidance on healthy choices and lifestyles,” stated Arnold-Lewis. The DOH already has programs specifically tailored to pre-school, elementary, junior high and high school students and plans to further develop this outreach activity to strengthen its relationship with each age group.”

Experts who shared the stage on St. Thomas included: Nicole A. Craigwell-Syms, Deputy Commissioner, Department of Health, Whitman Browne, former Principal of Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, and the former Kirwan Terrace Elementary School and currently the Principal of the 7th Day Adventist School on St. Thomas; and Anya Stewart Acting Executive Director of the Family Resource Center.

For more information: * On bullying, please visit the National Sexual Assault website at: or

* The Department of Health’s Chronic Disease Division is always available for referrals and can be reached at: 340-277-7609 Director Kathleen Arnold Lewis can also be contacted via email at: .

* For information or assistance with a domestic violence issue, please contact 340-776-STOP (emergencies) or 340-776-3966 on St. Thomas. They can also be reached via their website: * The Women’s Coalition of St. Croix – 340-773-9273 (available 24/7) The website is:

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