DEFY sleepover sends out wake-up call to youth

Sunday, January 27, 2002

Nearly 40 bright-eyed children and half as many bleary-eyed adults were up Saturday after a sleepover at Victorian Inn, ready for a day of history lessons in New Madrid.

To the casual onlooker, it might have seemed like a big birthday party or school celebration.

In reality, the children from Sikeston, Caruthersville and Cape Girardeau were gathered as part of the Drug Education for Youth, or DEFY, program.

The DEFY program is part of the seeding component of the Weed and Seed initiative, said Lisa Lane, executive director of Southeast Missouri Weed and Seed. Weed and Seed is a U.S. Department of Justice initiative designed to weed out violent crime, drug use and gang activity in targeted neighborhoods while funding grassroots improvements in those areas.

Friday night, the kids swam, ate pizza and danced around Austin Peay basketball players, asking for autographs. Perhaps lured by the scent of pizza or by the sounds of fun, the basketball players staying at the motel had asked whether they could mingle with the kids.

Along with ongoing athletic activities and eating, the youth listened to guest speakers warn them about the dangers of drugs and gangs.

One speaker was Lee Jones, a recovering drug addict who has been clean and sober for four years. Sikeston native Jones, 36, is a minister in Nashville, Tenn., but he knows firsthand the pain drugs can bring to addicts and their families.

He talked to the children Friday about his past.

"I've been in the penitentiary," Jones said. He told them his path was paved by his addiction to alcohol and cocaine.

Children asked him if he liked how the drugs made him feel.

"I try to be honest," Jones said. "I did enjoy drugs. But you have to find out that even though you like something, that don't mean it likes you."

He hit bottom in prison, where he realized how much the life he chose was hurting his family.

He has become a champion of programs like DEFY, which offer children mentors other than the "mac-daddies" he admired when he grew up.

"Just seeing them get a notch ahead makes all the difference in the world," Jones said.

DEFY is aimed at children between 9 and 12 years old. Participants are selected by local police, teachers and Weed and Seed officials.

The program has two phases, beginning with a week-long residential camp with a curriculum developed by the U.S. Navy Drug Demand Reduction Department.

At camp, students are taught skills emphasizing good health, education, physical fitness and good citizenship.

Phase two is a 10-month mentoring program that includes monthly educational and recreational activities designed to promote drug prevention awareness and self-esteem.

Lane said DEFY aims to offer those positive role models, assigning mentors to each child, with 3-4 children per mentor.

Saturday, the children were joined by a group from Charleston. They traveled together to New Madrid to visit museums.

"We take the kids on as many trips as we can," Lane said. "It's important to teach them about the history under their own feet."

Jones said kids today have it tougher: "They face much more temptation than we ever did." The glamorization of "the fast life" on television, in movies and in music, is hard to resist.

He urged children to listen to people they see as positive role models.

"It's good to hear it from someone who experienced it," Lane said.

The communities are embracing the program, Lane said.

Pizzas were donated by Domino's and Pizza Hut; Schnucks donated several cases of soda; Drury Inn donated Saturday's breakfast; and Save-A-Lot provided snacks for Saturday's lunch.

335-6611, extension 160

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