This was not your typical graduation ceremony.
Instead of a staid, formal atmosphere with speakers feeding them grandiose visions of the future, students who completed the anti-drug Behavioral Modification and Intervention Program got Donald Hooker.
Mr. Hooker, 43, prowled the classroom, addressing the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre students who sat on the perimeter at desks lining the walls. He growled about how his own drug use had affected his life. He barked out warnings about the dangers they faced. And he entreated them, gesturing broadly with his arms, to follow a better path.
“I know what it’s like to be up,” he told them, “and I know what it’s like to be down.”
Although he has been clean and sober for four years, Mr. Hooker is still in prison. As part of a work-release program, he spends his days working for the intervention program, under the auspices of the National Drug Council of the Cayman Islands.
Simon Miller is director of the program and also runs drug education programs in the government and private schools, meeting with 25 to 30 groups of students each week. Two years ago, he said, he saw the need for targeting at-risk students and launched the Behavioral Modification and Intervention Program, which is now in four schools.
Tuesday’s graduation was the first for the program.
“We want to focus on their attitudes,” Mr. Miller said of his approach to having an impact on the students’ lives. “We gear them toward healthy lifestyles.”
Mr. Hooker said his own drug problems “started from attitude and behavior.” He was first exposed to marijuana at age 4, he said. At 21, he became addicted to crack.
Changing the attitudes of the students, he said, takes more than just saying “no” to drugs. It’s important that they are shown alternatives. In addition to classroom meetings, there are extracurricular activities.
“If it’s conch season, we’ll dive conchs,” he said, adding that they’ll then cook out on the beach. “We show them how to jerk chicken, how to have fun without drugs and alcohol.”
Graduate Kevin Warren, 16, said the program had made an impression on him.
“I got in a little trouble,” he said. “I was smoking weed and failed a drug test.”
Kevin said he has lived in a group home for the past three years, where drug tests are regularly conducted. The program, he said, has given him tools to stay away from drugs. “I really listen to what he says,” he said, referring to Mr. Hooker. “It’s a positive thing to carry around.”
Peer pressure is often hard to avoid for teens. Ernesto Ebanks, 16, said the program has helped him avoid that pressure when it comes to drugs.
“It opened up my eyes to avoid some things happening to myself,” he said. “And I could tell other people.”
The program, said school counselor Paulette Gayle, is already creating a ripple effect. She said she recently overheard a group of girls talking about it in a school hallway.
“You hear them sharing with their peers,” she said. “They pass on the word.”
The firsthand experience they are exposed to has an impact, she added.
“They’re very enlightened by what has been shared by Mr. Hooker,” Ms. Gayle said. “The information he’s shared has shed a lot of light on things they hadn’t known. It’s allowed them to be more informed in their decision-making.”
She said plans are to refine the program and continue it next year.
Mr. Miller told this year’s graduates that they need not feel left behind now that they are leaving CIFEC.
“Rest assured that Mr. Hooker and myself and the national office will be there for you,” he said. “Come by and see us.”