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Two-day retreat a lesson on life for 150 youngsters

(ran East, South, West)

Saturday morning, typically an occasion for cartoons, chores or simply sleeping in, became a time for life lessons recently when 150 African-American children met for a retreat at a local church.

As at any sleepover, the night before had been for talking, giggling or teasing.

But there was serious work to be done the next morning as the children took their seats in the turquoise-accented sanctuary at Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ, 1137 37th St. S.

The children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, had come to learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, about opportunities for college and career, the ravages of sexually transmitted diseases and violence in relationships. They also had come to learn about respect and responsibility.

Not a minute of the two-day retreat was wasted on Janika Hubbard, 17, an 11th-grader at Dixie Hollins High School.

"I think that the various seminars were very informative, and I learned a lot," she said. "One thing that came to mind was when Judge (Michael) Andrews presented his presentation. He was saying that particularly for African-Americans that we have to do something with ourselves, because of all of the various ancestors and forefathers that went out of their way to make our lives much easier. Basically, he said we need to get off our behinds."

Pinellas County Court Judge Michael Andrews, a native of Homestead and an African-American, said he could not give up the opportunity to motivate African-American children.

"I think it is the most important thing I could possibly do," he said. "I think it is incumbent on African-American role models to show up when we can and do whatever it is that we can. . . . We've got so many problems that if we don't attempt to address them, it is going to spiral out of control."

It was Bettie Powell's idea to hold the retreat. Powell, a member of Prayer Tower, asked her pastor, elder Clarence Welch, whether she could organize the weekend after her niece was killed in September. The niece's husband has been charged with murder.

"They had been married only a year. She was 32 at the time when they got married," said Powell, a homemaker and volunteer.

"I had talked to him and said, "Please don't hit her.' I had been an abused wife in my first marriage, and I know how it feels. September last year, he killed her. It was so vicious, so violent, he almost decapitated her. I was dealing with it, and for the first time in my life I felt that I would need psychiatric help."

Instead she got her pastor's permission to organize a weekend retreat to teach children at her church how to choose friends and how to control their anger.

The event broadened to cover other life lessons and children from other churches.

Speakers included the Center Against Spouse Abuse, St. Petersburg Junior College's Pathways program, a deputy sheriff, a judge and others.

Speakers from CASA talked about violence.

"As we become elders, we are going to be living with these kids who will be the leaders, the followers, the criminals," said Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA. "We have to make them understand that violence is not normal."

In an exercise, the children made paper cutouts of their hands and were taught that hands are not made for hitting.

"Somehow, we have this illusion that it is this uncontrollable anger and that we have permission to hit, we have permission to use our hands, our fists, as weapons," she said.

"In our experience with domestic violence, abusers are in absolute control. They know where they are going to hit her, and how they are going to hit her. These are people who are in control of their actions and they are making a choice and we know that this violence is fairly generational, that a large number of abusers were abused, particularly male."

Unfortunately, said Osmundson, increasingly, young women also are resorting to violence.

CASA's executive director said she was pleased the organization was asked to be part of Prayer Tower's weekend retreat for young people.

"We don't get this kind of opportunity very often," she said. "We think we have to start when the children are very young."

Powell agrees.

"We can't start when they are 18, when they are old enough to have a boyfriend," said the mother of six adult children and Louisa, 12, and Angie, 14, whose adoptions were made final one day before the April 17 retreat.

"Children are very special for me," Powell said. "If we got one child helped from the 150 children, if we got the message over to just one. . . ."

The lessons found a willing student in 9-year-old Rosharra Francis, who attends Central Christian School. "You can handle things without violence," she said.

"If someone makes you mad, either you can hold your breath and count to 10 or you can walk away politely."

Center Against

Spouse Abuse

Local crisis hot line _ 898-3671

Statewide _ (800) 500-1119

To volunteer _ 823-4413