YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Nearly 40 children from Yokota Air Base and Atsugi Naval Air Facility got together here last week to learn about life and the dangers of illegal drug use.

The Drug Education For Youth camp, a national program created by Congress in 1993, is designed to promote social skills and alternatives to drug use in kids ages 9-12. Atsugi officials initiated the effort a year ago, while Yokota was participating for the first time.

The group, which included 19 students from Yokota and 18 from Atsugi, took field trips, went bowling, hit the pool and sat through interactive classes at the Taiyo Recreation Center.

“They learned how to solve conflicts and communicate with each other,” said Staff Sgt. Paola Tafur, who served as camp director of the Yokota contingent. “We taught them about general drug awareness, and showed them that they can enjoy themselves without getting into trouble.”

Navy Lt. C.J. Thomas and Chief Warrant Officer Frank Cardenas helped guide the Atsugi bunch, who stayed in Yokota billeting throughout the week.

“Yokota really hosted us very well,” Thomas said. “They bent over backwards to accommodate us. We had everything we needed.”

Thomas also stressed the importance of the camp’s message, saying Department of Defense Dependents Schools students tend to get “sheltered” in the overseas educational system, and could wind up easy prey for drug dealers when they return to the United States.

“Drug dealers start hitting kids at around this age,” he added. “To them, it’s a customer base. If they can get a customer using early, they’ve got ’em hooked. So we teach them awareness about what it is and what it’ll do. We show them realistic ways to gracefully bow out of those situations.”

The standard academic curriculum is broken down into four categories: self-management, social skills, physical fitness and drug information.

Capt. Spring Myers, who manages Yokota’s Alcohol, Drug and Prevention treatment program and acted as a staff volunteer for last week’s DEFY session, said the Taiyo lessons weren’t packaged in old, dull textbooks or black-and-white films.

“These kids have a lot of energy,” she said, “so everything is interactive. We tried to keep them moving.”

Ventures outside the classroom included trips to Hakkeijima Sea Paradise in Yokohama and the Fuji Safari Park. They also took part in a jam at the Yokota Youth Center.

The weeklong camp was Phase I of the overall DEFY program, said Wanda Wiggins, who managed the 10 adult volunteers and two junior staff members. In the second phase, participants gather once a month to review lessons and reinforce the values conveyed in camp.

That’ll include laser tag at Kamiseya next month and a drugdog demonstration by Atsugi security officers in the fall, Thomas said. After 12 sessions in Phase II, the students earn graduation certificates.

“We’ve been trying to implement this for two years,” said Wiggins, director of Yokota’s drug testing program. “We finally had the bodies to do it this year. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get this off the ground.”

While DEFY is free for participants, it’s a taxpayer-funded program. Officials allocated $315 per child at this year’s camp, Wiggins said, and Yokota budgeted for the first 20 students to register. The base may expand that to 30 in 2005.

Campers were provided meals and received backpacks, T-shirts, books and writing supplies, she added. The staff briefed parents about the camp’s activities, a mandatory requirement for participation.

“They showed us that drugs really affect you,” said Chelsea Castanuela, 11, who’ll be a sixth-grader at Yokota Middle School. “But I loved the field trips and seeing all the animals.”

Briana Samano and her younger sister, Dania, both students at Atsugi’s Shirley Lanham Elementary School, enjoyed the swim outing on Wednesday, but also found the instruction meaningful.

“They made the lessons fun with some games,” said Briana Samano, 11.

While most staff volunteers were granted permissive temporary duty by the command, Thomas opted to take a week of personal leave.

“I love spending time with the kids,” he said. “The week has been great. The best part of the camp, though, is watching some of the shy, reserved kids who sometimes don’t fit in with the crowd find others just like themselves from the other base. They found mirror images of each other.

“It’s really fantastic to see these kids come together.”

Myers labeled the entire week a success.

“It’s been a hit,” she said. “The main thing we wanted to do was show the kids an alternative lifestyle to drugs. Start ‘em young, and hopefully these things will stay with them until they’re adults.”

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