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Fighting Risky Behavior with Recreation, Education

County program for youths living at Stonegate Village Apartments combines anti-drug and alcohol education with outdoor activities.

As part of an activity to consider how alcohol and cigarettes are marketed to children, Darryl Davis, 11, realized he is being barraged constantly with the message that he should drink and smoke.

"They do it toward young children," said Davis, a resident of the Stonegate Village Apartment complex in Reston. "They want to get us early so they'll get us to smoke and drink longer and they get more money."

Davis' revelation last Wednesday came to him during the LifeSkills Training class he attends twice a week at Stonegate Village. LifeSkills, run by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Service Board, works to teach children living at four Fairfax County affordable housing developments how to resist peer pressure, develop a positive self-image and make healthy decisions in their lives.

The summer program combines education about risky behavior with recreation. Each Wednesday, the children sit in the common room at Stonegate Village for discussions intended to inoculate them from dangerous pressure.

Last week, they brainstormed about how they are influenced by the media and thumbed through magazines looking at attempts to sell them alcohol and cigarettes.

The following day, the group goes outside for recreational activities intended to teach teamwork and build self confidence. Last Thursday, the children were given a free tennis lesson at the nearby tennis courts.

"This prepares you for life," Davis said. "Because it's going to be tough."

LUZ MARINA ZULETA, who runs the Stonegate Village LifeSkills program, said the message appears to resonate well with the children, who seem more self-confident and adamant in their belief that substance abuse should be avoided.

"They become more social, more prone to make healthy decisions in their lives," Zuleta said. "They see people smoking and drinking and they know they don't want to end up like that."

The program started in Fairfax County three years ago, after the Community Service Board was awarded a $320,000 state grant to fight substance abuse. The grant money is scheduled to run out next month, but the CSB will continue to offer the program during the summer with county funding.

Patti McGrath, coordinator of the LifeSkills program for the CSB, said most of the children enrolled in the program come from low-income households and some frequently see the effects of drugs and alcohol on their neighbors and family members.

"They're latch-key kids," McGrath said. "This lets them participate in a supervised program during the summer."

In addition to the education and recreation components of the program, all of the children also receive a free hot lunch from Fairfax County.

"A lot of them can't get a nutritious lunch at home," said Melody Thompson, Stonegate Village's property manager.

LAST THURSDAY, after a rain storm forced the children off the tennis courts, the 15 children in the program sat around the table in Stonegate Village's common room and said they are learning how to buttress themselves against dangerous lifestyle decisions.

"We get to play a lot and learn stuff about alcohol and drugs," said Phillip Abaritio, an 11-year-old Stonegate Village resident enrolled in the program. "We're learning what's safe and not safe."

Bessem Ebott, 14, said the program works for her because it has revealed healthy alternatives to merely hanging out and getting into trouble.

"If you do activities, you don't think of doing drugs," she said. "It gets your mind off it."