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Commander Explores Youth Issues

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2002 – When defense officials launched a pilot program to assess youth-at-risk issues, Navy Cdr. Joanne Marie Fish was one of three commanders whose request for an assessment was granted. A team of youth development professionals visited her command at the end of April.

"As a new commanding officer of Naval Support Activity, Gaeta, Italy, I was very interested in learning about the quality of life issues of members and families living in this community," she said. "I knew that in addition to the normal challenges of Navy life like deployment and family separation, Gaeta families and youth are exposed to many unique challenges associated with living in a small, overseas community."

Youth-at-risk issues and needs often cause family stress and require service members to take time away from work, Fish said. "In this community, that's very important, as we serve deploying commands. Also, when youth at risk have problems that exceed the resources available and cannot be addressed in this community, the entire family must be returned to CONUS, often creating gapped billets."

Fish noted that there is no high school in Gaeta so youth must travel almost four hours each day to attend high school in Naples, or they board in Rome.

"I quickly learned that it's very difficult to assess needs and plan programs for teens who are here in the community only on nights and weekends," she said. "The youth assessment provided a wonderful opportunity for us to learn more about the issues and challenges facing our youth and their families."

The commander didn't have to wait long for the team's report, Fish noted. She received it on the last day of their five-day visit.

"From the report," she said, "I gained a comprehensive and objective view of the needs of our youth and of the issues facing them and their families. Additionally, the team provided practical and realistic recommendations to address the needs and issues."

Based on the team's recommendations, command officials established a youth program. They established a youth advisory board consisting of leadership from all commands, providers, school and parents. The group has met to plan and clarify goals.

"When school begins," Fish said, "we will establish our youth council, which will consist of youth from each school and age group. As the youth council gets rolling, the youth advisory group will use their input and issues to generate action.

Command officials also met with the school in Rome and plan to implement a peer counseling program there in the fall. Another project for the fall will be to establish a middle school identity, she said.

"The Gaeta School has elementary through middle school students, and the assessment revealed to us that the middle school students felt they had no identity and felt part of 'the little kids,'" she said. "This is a project we feel we can begin to implement immediately, and have some ideas that will be 'no cost,' but generate immediate results. Most of these ideas came from the middle school students, themselves."

Command officials also intend to help establish a "Gaeta community presence" in the community's remote schools, she added.

From the team's report, command officials also gained some insight into some community issues that go beyond the youth. "One of the recommendations was that we publish a comprehensive community calendar to better publicize the programs that are available," the commander said. "While a portion of this new calendar will focus on youth events, everyone in the community will benefit from the calendar.

Fish recommends the assessment team to other commanders. "They were very thorough, professional, experienced, flexible and understanding," she said. "They were well- grounded in research related to youth and families, and they implemented the assessment in a very practical way.

"The process the team used was outstanding," she said. "The combination of individual interviews, focus groups, and a workshop with representatives of the entire community, including youth, parents, command leadership, and service providers, ensured an accurate, high-quality report."

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