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Tribal members cross the peninsula for Wellness Conference

Wellness Conference01MARCO ISLAND — Bright yellow T-shirts filled the lobby, beach and meeting rooms at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa on opening day for the 21st annual Seminole Wellness Conference.

“We fought too long to die by our own hands,” read the back of the shirts. On the front was a drawing of a happy family.

Five days of intensive health workshops, fun fitness activities, exciting field trips and emotional addiction recovery meetings followed for 200 adults and nearly 200 children and teens on a mission to take charge of their bodies, minds and souls.

Family Services Department director Helene Buster, who started the tribalwide Wellness Conference more than two decades ago, said the event provides a safe environment for Tribal members to seek or continue life-long healing after years of physical, mental and spiritual pain.

Drug and alcohol recovery were at the core of the convention. Buster said 75 to 100 Tribal members are typically in recovery programs at any given time, but those numbers represent only a portion of the people who use drugs and alcohol every day.

“I hope everyone eventually learns that because you fall, it doesn’t mean you have to stay down. The No. 1 message is that we all have choices regardless of our circumstance,” said Buster, a recovering addict who is 26 years sober.

Held July 20-24, the conference covered alcohol, drug and gambling addiction, and it also provided sessions on often connected issues, including diabetes, common childhood illnesses, obesity, codependency, mental health and family happiness.

Attendees ranged from preschoolers to the elderly, from concerned community members to those who shared heartbreaking personal stories.

“For me, the conventions are like coming home to visit family,” said Harold Baxley, who worked in the Tribe’s recovery program for more than a dozen years before becoming a Wellness Conference speaker.

Baxley, a recovering alcoholic and current substance abuse counselor with a master’s degree in Christian psychology, said he still deals with the psychological scars of his childhood – even at age 68. He began drinking heavily at age 17 to escape a chaotic home life caused by alcoholic parents.

“We all have to find our own bottom before climbing out. Usually that happens after a great and horrible consequence,” Baxley said. “I have 40 years of recovery and going to meetings, but I still haven’t heard it all.”

Daily activities began with a sunrise beach walk.

For children, sessions included arts and crafts, recreational sports and discussions about bullying and healthy communication. The Tribe’s Health Department Fitness Center provided older teens, adults and seniors with water aerobics, beach volleyball, personal workout sessions and kickboxing.

Representatives from many Tribal social service departments offered information on myriad health-related topics at tables placed outside meeting rooms.

Tribal members, none with less than one year of sobriety, peppered the conference with personal testimonials.

Real Talk, a presentation created by Lewis Gopher, shared the hard truth about how “partying” nearly destroyed his life. Trouble with the law and the threat of losing his children led to his breaking point.

“On May 30, 2011, I woke up scared. God put the fear of consequences into me, but at the same time, I knew that if I didn’t get high or drink that I had nothing to fear,” Gopher said. “I never knew life could be so simple.”

Hope and faith were recurring themes in all presentations.

Guest speaker Sonya McKee, a former heroin addict who is now a hard-core drug abuse counselor, said most addicts undergo a “spiritual awakening” during the recovery process that has little to do with formal religion. Instead, it has to do with several spiritual principles that include honesty, hope, faith, integrity, humility, awareness and love.

The principles are included in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs. All the speakers and guests in recovery credited formal programs for their sobriety.

For Buster, helping others get straight through sobriety programs is not only a function of the Family Services Department, it is a mission.

She said the door is always open.

“We can never make you do what you don’t want, but we can help you do what is mandated to stay out of jail, keep your children and turn your own problem into something that helps our Tribe,” Buster said. “And we will help you do it one day at a time.”