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Event helps parents, youth focus on family

As both a student at Ohio University Southern and a parent of a three-year old, Traci Stephens was part of both groups being targeted by this year's Family Life Conference at Ohio University Southern yesterday.

Stephens received renewed confidence in her parenting from keynote speaker Dr. Ray Guarendi, a father of 10 and frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Guarendi blended humor and a strong message of discipline in a presentation that was equal parts Gallagher, Tim Allen and Dr. Phil.

"He was wonderful for the parents," Stephens said. "He made them feel at ease with their parenting skills, and more comfortable with their own way of doing things. I'm one of the repeating parents who says 'Now, if you do that one more timeŠ' so maybe now I won't feel so bad if I have to make my 3-year old girl mind me now."

Guarendi was followed by a dynamic 19-year-old named Dante' Shackelford who within the first five minutes had the audience clapping, shouting and even singing along, all to help reinforce his anti-drug, pro-education message.

Candice Parsons, Katie Pyles and Sara Jones, all 8th-graders at Ironton Junior High, were still energized from Shackelford's presentation as they discussed what they had seen during a pizza lunch.

"We learned that drugs are bad, and you should stay away from them," Pyles said.

Parsons was quick to add, "(We learned) that you should finish school and always do your best, get good grades and stuff."

Familes of all types

Dr. Jim Crawford is the director of Ohio University Southern's Center for Innovation and Leadership, the group that organized the Family Life Conference, now in its second year.

Though the messages presented Monday morning aimed to help parents and students in their own lives, the main goal of the conference was to help these two groups work together more effectively.

Non-traditional families were the special focus of this year's conference, open to parents, students, teachers or anyone concerned with building stronger relationships.

"This year we're working with the concept of blended families," Crawford said. "For example we have one session called 'Grandparents-Parents All Over Again.' But we also want to deal with drugs, and some of the other pressures that are facing families today."

Something for all

All of Guardeni's children have come to him through adoption, making him an exceptional candidate for this year's session. He said at the conference that the key to raising his children has been strong love, but also a stern resolve in dealing with behavioral problems.

"Young people are going to be disciplined, but who's going to do it?" Guarendi said. "If it's not a parent, it will be a judge, a police officer, a landlord, an Army sergeant, or, this is frighteningŠa wife."

Though Guarendi's experience in dealing with blended families would be useful for parents and children alike, Crawford said that Shackelford was admittedly chosen to appeal directly to the younger set.

"We always like to have a speaker that just focuses on our teens so that they have a way to absolutely relate when they come here, that there is going to be something for them as well, so that's kind of the mix we seek," Crawford said.

In afternoon breakout groups, students and parents were able to interact individually with the speakers, as well as with family-based professionals from the region. These sessions instructed parents and students on general family issues, alongside some focusing specifically on blended families.

Learning together

The Family Life Conference for 2005 was also set apart by the inclusion of the Lawrence County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Delay's "MRDD at the Movies" which presented "Door to Door," the fact-based story of Bill Porter (played by William H. Macy) a salesman living with cerebral palsy who unites a community.

"With the theme of the conference, it was just a natural fit of our MRDD Awareness Month activities," said Sarah Diamond Burroway, chair of the MRDD Awareness Committee. "So we have the movie which of course had the disability awareness message, and one of the afternoon breakout sessions is also related to disabilities."

Through the inspirational tale of Bill Porter, the energetic sermonizing of Dante' Shackelford, and the informative humor of Ray Guarendi, the overall message of the conference was communicated to parents and their children: Families come in all shapes and sizes.

Thanks to the Family Life Conference, the youngsters and their folks were able to learn this lesson not as separate camps but together, as one big, happy family.