Positive Vibes for Public Health: Inspiring Island Students

“What if you can’t trust your parents?” 

That was the weighty question a young student posed to Amulen Wirsiy, a CDC Foundation public health analyst with the Overdose Response Strategy (ORS) program. Stationed in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Wirsiy regularly visits elementary schools across the three-island chain to provide information and education on substance use. “We were talking about the trusted adults you might turn to for help and resources,” said Wirsiy. But she didn’t let the student’s query faze her. “I said, what about an adult at school? Your teachers? Or even your friends’ parents?”

Wirsiy also gives the students her own contact information, as well as that of partners from the USVI’s Department of Health and 9-8-8, the mental health hotline. “The resource part is very, very important. A lot of their community members are struggling, and sometimes the students see it and want to help, but don't know how.”

What is the Overdose Response Strategy Program?

As part of the USVI ORS team, Wirsiy is partnered with Drug Intelligence Officer Rodney Querrard of the Puerto Rico/USVI High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. Their mission is to help reduce drug overdoses in USVI by connecting public health and public safety organizations, sharing information, supporting interventions and recovery and educating residents about substance use issues.

A chain of islands including Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands is home to only 87,000 people. The territory lost eight lives from opioid overdoses between 2019 and 2021, according to the Virgin Islands Department of Justice, compared to 80,000 U.S. lives lost in 2021 alone. But even one death is too many.

So vigilance is high, and USVI Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said her department has been focused on improving education and treatment for opioid addiction. "Prevention truly is the best method," Encarnacion has been quoted as saying.

Wirsiy and Querrard have been busy visiting schools across the territory, delivering presentations called “Positive Vibes Alone” to some 6,000 students. They speak to each grade level separately and encourage discussion around dealing with peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol, smart decision-making and self-reliance, as well as the physical and emotional effects of various substances.



Positive Vibes on Video

Recently, the USVI ORS team partnered with government agencies, community groups and the local telecom company Viya to create a contest for public middle schools. Students in grades 6-8 were invited to produce a short video as a public service announcement. The winners, a team from St. John’s Julius E. Sprauve School, were awarded a cash gift-card prize of $500 each, swag bags and certificates of achievement presented by Wirsiy and her colleagues. 

The second-place team, from Alfredo Andrews Elementary in St. Croix, also received prizes and a special visit. After screening the entry for the Andrews class, Wirsiy didn’t miss the chance to lead a group discussion. “What were the things that you took away? Where could you go to get some more information? What would you tell a friend about this? I try my best to lead every session like a facilitated conversation.” 

And that often allows the students to open up in ways they haven’t before. “It is such a safe kind of environment to be able to share. In some cases, there was no other way that the school staff could hear that information.”

The contest was covered by local news, which quoted U.S. Attorney Delia L. Smith as saying: “The HIDTA public service announcement competition was created to provide our students with an opportunity to express their concerns about gun violence and substance use in the community. The creativity of our youth continues to inspire us. They all did exceptionally well.”


ORS Public Health Analyst Amulen Wirsiy leads a class discussion with St. Croix students

Video contest winners: Julius E. Sprauve Elementary School students

Drug Intelligence Officer Rodney Querrard and Public Health Analyst Amulen Wirsiy

Helping Her Own Community

A native of the USVI who grew up and graduated from college in the Atlanta area, Wirsiy is in tune with the island’s small, tight-knit community, and admits that drug and alcohol use can still be difficult subjects to talk about. “It’s not just about substance use as a disorder, but also stigma reduction around mental health,” she said. “But what I found in the conversations that I’ve had in my two years in my role here is that the culture is changing. We’ve been learning how to navigate that.”

It was important for Wirsiy to return to her family home to practice in her chosen field of public health. “I saw it as an opportunity to be a real active agent of change. So I've really loved this position and what I've been able to do for my community.” 


Portions of the project mentioned in this article are supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,400,000 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government. 

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