According to a recent teen survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, many teens, particularly boys, feel pressured to have sex. Another national study found that about one in five teens report having sex before they turn 15 years old. To help teenagers make the right decision and avoid the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, a non-profit organization has developed an outreach program through its teen clinics in the Washington area. Faiza Elmasry visited one of these teen clinics and reports that the friendly atmosphere encourages young women and men to ask questions and express their views freely without any fear of being judged.
Discussions continue for more than an hour where a health educator runs, what she calls, a game targeted at informing teens about abstinence and sexuality. Everybody is participating in the discussion, and parents are welcome to take part as well. Food and drinks are served. Medical consultations and examinations are also available.
"Our work is very important because there is a very alarming rate of HIV and other STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases), and because healthy young girls and boys become healthy and self sufficient men and women in our community," says Jatrice Martel Gaiter is the president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington (PPMW), a non-profit organization that sponsors this program.
Planned Parenthood has been providing reproductive, health care and educational programs to different communities in the Washington area for more than six decades. Through its clinics, it recently introduced a new outreach program. "We are so surprised that young people who are sexually active do not know anything about their own bodies. They do not understand the importance and the seriousness of relationships, having communication skills and problem solving skills with other people. We are also looking at mental health care. So many young people are facing depression, life changing, or life threatening issues with no place to go."
As a nurse in the teen clinic, Paula Bryant says it saddens her to see some girls get involved in risky relationships unaware of the serious consequences. She believes that most of her patients were looking for assurance when they got into such relationships. "I think they are searching for someone to love them. So when somebody offers them a little bit of love and touch, they think that is something good and they want that. And maybe when this person moves on, someone else comes along and they are still seeking this kind of attention and affection," she says.
When dealing with teenagers and sex issues, Planned Parenthood vice president Virginia Martin believes it is important to address the motivation behind the risky behavior among boys and girls as they reach their teenage years. "A lot of these very human behaviors are happening earlier and earlier on," she says. So what we are trying to do is reach out to younger and younger populations to talk to them before they start thinking about sexual activities, and trying to assess what is it about the social structure, what is it about being young nowadays that is compelling these young men and women to engage in these behaviors a lot sooner than two generations ago, and even sooner than one generation ago?"
Ms. Martin says Planned Parenthood provides teen pregnancy prevention programs in American schools, both public and private. Yet she believes that the way the outreach program is designed and applied through the teen clinics is what makes it more efficient than other similar programs. "What we found is, particularly in the areas that have so much young people, the 'one shot' approach is not enough," she says. "With these teen clinics, the set up is geared to take advantage of the fact that you have the young person in your office, who is there to ask questions, who is there to receive medical services and be educated. So the next time they come in, they are asking different questions. And hopefully that they have had good information given to them, they are making more responsible decisions."
Planned Parenthood developed this program with the help of other community organizations including several youth groups and churches. Reverend George Young, youth minister of St. Paul's Christian Community Church, says the church still represents a major institution within the local African American community that he deals with. "I think kids need a complete picture or a complete solution to dealing with health and behavior at the present time. And when we leave out the spiritual message, we are not giving them a complete picture. So what I do is to educate and inform young folks, those who are Christians, about what God says about our sexual behavior and our sexual health," he says. "I give the perspective of what is included in the Christian message. But I do not necessarily have the technical information that the Planned Parenthood would have. That is where the collaboration between both of us comes into play."
Reverend Young says teenagers are smart, and his message is persuasive. "I think that approach is effective because it is a complete approach and it does not talk at anyone, it talks with them. What I do is try to draw them in by making the message attractive and in a way that they understand. But I do not compromise on what the Christian message says. I make it up front and plain; God says it is a sin to have sex outside a marriage," he says.
Planned Parenthood vice president Virginia Martin considers the program a good source of information for parents who need to give their children the right guidance. She says that since the program started last Fall, parents have been very supportive. "I think they are relieved that there is an organization that does this, and that the teen clinics are available. We've seen fathers, mothers and grandmothers dropping their teens off and sitting in the car waiting to make sure they have stayed a certain period of time," she says. "I think it is indicative of a larger problem, which is for so long there has not been a place for these young people to go. And unless they came to us with their own volition, they were left with very few sources for good information."
Planned Parenthood president Jatrice Martel Gaiter says the fact that teenagers return to the clinics speaks for itself. She believes the program works because it makes young men and women feel embraced and respected, which, particularly for these kinds of sensitive issues, is important.