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Alternatives to Violence Project Spreading from St. Croix to St. Thomas

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Feb. 5, 2008 — About 35 or so years ago, a group of Quakers in upper New York state decided to help longterm prisoners learn more effective ways to live in a severe environment, and the Alternatives to Violence Project was born. It has since spread worldwide, helping not just prisoners but anyone affected by violence.
And is it helping Virgin Islanders now. Youngsters at Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School will benefit from the training this week.
Tuesday morning AVP trainer Carolyn Keys introduced Rotary Sunrise members to the remarkable program and its gentle teachings. Keys, who lived on St. Croix for 20 years, raising a family and doing social work, learned about the AVP program several years ago while living in New Jersey.
She has been training on St. Croix for the past few years, and this week she is bringing that training to St. Thomas.
Adrian Bishop, Rotary Sunrise community service chair, introduced Keys Tuesday — and also introduced some sobering statistics. The Virgin Islands has become one of the most violent communities under the U.S. flag, he said. The 2007 murder rate in the territory was 47.
That's 47 people killed out of a population of 100,000. The U.S. average is 5.5 per 100,000.
He acknowledged that the crime problem is unique to the territory; it's pervasive in all communities.
"I don't suggest the V.I. is on the cusp of the collapses of civil disorder," Bishop said, "but rising levels of domestic violence around our schools are indicators that the seeds of violence are sprouting here."
AVP is an innovative way not to sow those seeds — to cut them off before they sprout. Since Keys began the training, helping people to learn to love and live with each other has become her passion. A major key to the training is to train whomever is taking the course in taking a leadership role in training others.
Keys started full bore, right into the heart of conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She was one of four initial AVP trainers sent in 2000. Trained at a Quaker AVP school in South Africa, the trainers went to Burundi, where Keys spent two years.
"We worked with what are called the genocidiares, a French word referring to the 100,000 who were accused but never tried," Keys said. "The president made a plea for churches to help in welcoming them back home."
The goal was reconciliation.
"They were tried in Gacaca, local courts," Keys continued. "We had trained 100 or more local people and we worked in a reconciliation, trauma-healing program. We were able to move in to the most difficult situations. We invited Tutsis and Hutus to the same workshops."
Keys paused a moment.
"Some of them were holding hands, learning forgiveness and understanding," she said.
Speaking later, Keys said it was while she was in Africa that she decided to return to St. Croix, where she saw the training could be put to good stead.
"We have trained about 20 on St. Croix now, and we want to do the same on St. Thomas," she said. All 20 aren't always active because they have other volunteer commitments. Barbara Knight, an Education Complex teacher, is with her to do the Tuitt school training, along with Bishop.
Bishop said he hasn't finished all the AVP training, but is familiar with the principles. He also worked in Burundi in a rebuilding program for destroyed villages.
The program operates under the umbrella of the Inter Faith Coalition of St. Croix. It has received several leadership grants for the training, Keys said.
"Our goal is to bring this resource to St. Thomas to give young people an initial training experience that could be life-changing," she said.
Keys obviously welcomes a challenge. After Africa, she took the training to the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix, an overcrowded facility often fraught with discipline problems. She and her volunteers have led a series of six programs there.
With what soon appears to be her characteristic hopefulness, Keys related an anecdote from the YRC program: "One young man came up to me after one of our sessions. He looked at me and said, 'I'm going to get rid of my gun when I go home.' He said, 'It's buried, but I'll find it.'"
She described some of the tools of the program, one of which is power transference. She explained: "A woman was walking through Central Park, taking home a load of groceries. She heard harsh footsteps behind her. She turned around, faced the man trailing her, and handed him her armload of bags. 'Here, thank you so much,' she said. When she reached her corner, she turned to the man, took back her groceries, and thanked him profusely. 'This wasn't what I was planning,' he said, 'but, you're welcome.'''
Keys said, "I don't know if I would have had that presence of mind, but what it's about is surprise and humor."
Her children and her friends worried about her going to Africa.
"They were afraid for me," said Keys, who is a Quaker. "They asked me if I was afraid. I told them, 'No, I have my faith. I don't know if I'll come back alive or dead, but I know I will be OK.'"
Tuitt fifth graders will get four hour-and-a-half sessions of training this week, and the sixth graders will receive the same next week.
Training will be available as soon as there are enough applicants, Keys said. There are weekend training sessions and mini-workshops, she said. To apply or for more information, call Keys at 719-7805 or Adrian Bishop at 776-7171.
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