Margaret Zohni, Kubasaki High School’s Adolescent Substances Abuse Counseling Services counselor.

Margaret Zohni, Kubasaki High School’s Adolescent Substances Abuse Counseling Services counselor. (David Allen / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Margaret Zohni has completed her first year as Kubasaki High School’s Adolescent Substances Abuse Counseling Services counselor on a bit of a natural high.

The Marine Corps on Okinawa, which is responsible for her program, has called it a resounding success.

“This has been the fastest start-up we’ve seen in any of the ASACS,” said John L. Velker, director of the Marine Corps Community Services’ Substance Abuse Center on Okinawa. Velker, who has experience with similar programs in Europe and South Korea, said the Kubasaki program is exceeding expectations.

“Most programs have a 10 percent participation rate,” he said during a recent interview in Zohni’s office at the high school. “That’s 10 percent of the student body being referred to the program and assisted in some way. Last year, 14.3 percent at Kubasaki were referred.”

The high percentage, said Zohni, whose last counseling position was at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, was more a matter of pent-up demand for such a program than an indication the substance abuse situation at Kubasaki was worse than at any other school.

It also was due to the cooperation of the faculties at the high school and Lester Middle School, which the program also covers, and support from the Marine command, she said.

But Velker said it’s also due to Zohni’s efforts to reach out to the community instead of waiting for students to find their way to her office.

“Success for me,” Zohni said, “is not so much the percentage of referrals but the fact that the number of teenagers with drug and alcohol issues who get into trouble has decreased.”

She said she had no statistics to support her contention but shared stories of some of what she considers her biggest “successes.”

“I actually had two students who wrote to me after their graduation,” she said. “One is in the military and doing well and said the program literally saved her life. The other recently PCS’d to the States and is in a new school and doing well. These were two substance abusers who got into real trouble with the law and really straightened up.”

According to Zohni’s statistics, 54 of the students referred to the program were enrolled in counseling. Of that number, 28 were alcohol abusers, 14 were in danger of abusing alcohol or other substances, four were drug abusers and eight were treated for issues related to being the children of alcoholic parents.

“Alcohol is the preferred drug,” Zohni said. “It’s very available on Okinawa. I asked some of the students where they’d go to get alcohol and they came up with a list of 10 places right off the bat.”

Most were convenience stores outside the bases. “They said nobody cards them,” Zohni said.

But why do some overseas military-family teens turn to substance abuse?

“They are under a great deal of stress, perhaps more than their stateside counterparts,” Zohni said. “They have academic challenges in school and then go home to face the challenges of coping with a parent being deployed. Plus, there’s a sense of separation. In the military community there’s a constant shifting of people coming and going, there’s a constant change in friendships and a sense of separation from their family back in the States — aunts, uncles, grandparents.

“All of these things have a ripple effect,” she said.

A major part of the program is prevention, Zohni said. “So, I work with them to have strong enough resilience to face down the pressure to engage in destructive behavior.

“One of the real tributes to the program is the fact that the kids are referring others to the program,” she said. When a member of their circle starts to act out, a friend will tell them to check in with Zohni.

“They know I’m not the police,” she said. “I can be friendly but still be very firm and they respect that. They are looking for guidance, direction. They are not my buddies.”

Velker said Marine commanders on the island, including Lt. Gen. Robert E. Blackman Jr., commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, have noted how well the program has done in its first year.

Zohni, in turn, said she’s happy to be working with them.

“The Marines are unique,” she said. “I like the straightforward, no-nonsense approach. They have a ‘How can we do it?’ attitude instead of trying to explain why something can’t be done.”

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