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Teen Educators Spread The Word About Sexual Health

Audio

Aired 2/19/10

Nearly half of all San Diego teenagers have sexual intercourse by the time they graduate from high school. Even so, many of these teens don't know how to prevent pregnancy or how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

— Nearly half of all San Diego teenagers have sexual intercourse by the time they graduate from high school. Even so, many of these teens don't know how to prevent pregnancy or how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

Anisha McGowin (left) and Sherice West (right) work as peer educators at their high schools. They talk to teens about sexual health, pregnancy prevention, and where to go if they need reproductive health care.
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Above: Anisha McGowin (left) and Sherice West (right) work as peer educators at their high schools. They talk to teens about sexual health, pregnancy prevention, and where to go if they need reproductive health care.

In Central San Diego, some peer educators try to give their fellow teens the right information.

Sherice West is a senior at San Diego's Lincoln High School. She says a lot of teenagers are ignorant when it comes to sex. And West thinks adults like it that way.

"I think everybody thinks that it's for the better, that you not know, because they think you're not doing it," West says. "But I think that it's all for the better if you do know about this stuff because everybody is doing it. And I don't think anybody should be blind to this because it's a part of your everyday life, it's like breathing."

A couple of times a week during lunchtime, West talks to other teens about sex.

"It’s like, we're just talking, like, you know, just like a regular group, and we talk about all this stuff in our own little, you know, slang and everything," West continues. "You know, I get it out there and try to teach them the stuff that they don't know."

Sherice West is one of 20 specially trained peer educators in Central San Diego. The educators are part of an outreach program that's funded by a state grant for pregnancy prevention.

San Diego's Family Health Centers started the initiative in 1996. Since then, hundreds of peer educators have spread the word about sexual health.

Seventeen-year-old peer educator Anisha McGowin says the concept is simple: Teens listen to other teens.

"I mean it's different if you're talking to your mom," McGowin points out. "You're like, yeah, okay, whatever. But I mean, as a teen they can relate more to me. So most likely, they're gonna listen to what I'm telling them because we have that connection, and we can relate to one another."

McGowin says she does more than simply give out information. For example, she says some of the girls she talks to think that it's okay to have a baby. McGowin tries to figure out the reason for that mindset.

"Why does she want to get pregnant?" McGowin asks. "Or why does she feel the need to have a baby? Is it because there are problems at home? Why does she feel the need to have sex with the boys, because she's being pressured? Is it because of the people she's around? Does she need to, you know, try something different and surround herself with different types of people?"

Jennette Lawrence is with Family Health Centers. She concedes that most of the talk is about sex. But not all of it.

"But the other key part is really making sure that they believe in themselves, that they have self respect, and the self-esteem to make the right decisions for them, not getting pushed into something they don't want to do," Lawrence says.

Each peer educator is given 40 hours of training. This includes shadowing experienced educators, and doing mock presentations.

Lawrence says these young people get a lot out of what they do.

"These teens, when they're talking to their peers, are not only educating their peers, but they're reinforcing their own behavior, and are much more likely to live it in their own lives," Lawrence says. "And it's an incredible phenomenon that has huge impacts throughout the course of their lifetime."

Another goal of the program is to get students to visit the Teen Health Center in Barrio Logan. This clinic offers physical exams and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases. It also dispenses condoms and other methods of birth control.

In 2008, the clinic treated more than 4,500 patients.

Robin Soto is a nurse practitioner at the Teen Health Center. She says peer educators are really effective at getting the message out to other kids.

"It's almost like having a translator, it's like speaking to somebody who speaks your own language," Soto says. "So it gives them room to be relaxed and comfortable, and helps them to have information flow way before I even talk to them."

But in the final analysis, it's hard to tell whether peer educators really are effective in reducing teen pregnancy.

In the Barrio Logan/Logan Heights area for example, teen birth rates have fluctuated in recent years.

Rates declined between 2002 and 2005. But they've gone back up. In fact, the state has recently designated the area as a teen pregnancy hot spot.

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