Even bipartisan groups agree that health care is complicated, but a contingent of local students is keeping it simple at a grass-roots level, taking charge of their own care through a peer-to-peer education program at Planned Parenthood Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley.
Now in its fourth year, the nonprofit organization’s Peer Advocacy Program has reached youth across 16 school districts in the valley, teaching students how to become their own best advocates when it comes to access to reproductive health care. So far, 38 students have completed the program, but those kids have, in turn, touched a host of others at their schools by creating public service announcements and sharing brochures about the broad range of free services available at PPPSGV.
The program is growing quickly, with 25 students — the largest group ever — participating this year.
“After the 2016 election I began feeling really helpless as a teenager, and just feeling like my voice didn’t matter and there was nothing I could do to make tangible change or to shift the political climate,” said Solaar Kirkdacker, a peer advocate who is a junior at Westridge School.
A few girls at her school gave a presentation about the peer advocacy program, and Kirkdacker said it was as if a light had turned on.
“It seemed like a way teens could really make a change in the community, in the way that I’d been wanting to,” she said. “I fell in love with what Planned Parenthood was doing and I really respected the idea of education by teens for teens.”
The peer advocacy program marks one of the newer efforts by PPPSGV, which was founded in 1933 and is one of the oldest Planned Parenthood affiliates in the country. It has stood firm in its mission to ensure broad public access to sexual and reproductive health care through medical services, education and advocacy over the years, and today provides more than 60,000 patient visits per year.
With a service area extending across the San Gabriel Valley, PPPSGV’s four health centers provide care to 24 communities with some 1.4 million people. About 95% of the services the organization provides are preventive, including life-saving cancer screenings, FDA-approved methods of birth control, HIV prevention, annual exams, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
PPPSGV delivers more than 11,000 opportunities for accurate information through health education programs that are offered to middle and high schools, colleges, universities and in other community settings, and teach skills that reinforce healthy behavior and promote communication.
Now, with the success of the peer advocacy program, students each year (they must apply annually in a selection process), are trained to become point persons to whom other students may turn with questions about sexuality, staying safe and healthy or how to access Planned Parenthood services.
Barker Thompson, a peer advocate and junior at Polytechnic School, is proud of what he’s accomplished at his school through promoting awareness. A member of the Queer Straight Alliance at Poly, Thompson has helped develop safe spaces for other students to discuss their sexuality, and he helps connect them with services if they need further help. Planned Parenthood offers an online chat room with health educators, providing privacy and anonymity.
“I was always frustrated growing up, with the lack of education and lack of open discussion. … It kind of led me on this path of wanting to get involved with my community for education, awareness and advocacy, not just to marginalized groups but to everyone,” Thompson said. “From the get-go I had a positive relationship with Planned Parenthood — its goal to serve everyone and breaking down barriers of silence is something I really value. The silence regarding issues about consent or gender norms, things that are really hard to address, I want to open that up in my community.”
The local organization provides professional grass-roots organizers and community health educators to oversee the peer advocates and help train them in sex education and how to educate others, and impart leadership and organizational training to create community impact projects. Previous projects have included a “Take Back the Night” rally and spoken word demonstration to bring awareness to sexual assault; student-made PSAs to educate their peers on toxic masculinity, birth control methods, healthy relationships and consent; and a student guide to reporting sexual assault or harassment on high school campuses.
“The Planned Parenthood Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley Peer Advocates Program is very proud to provide local high school students the opportunity to become leaders, create positive change, and build support for reproductive rights and social justice throughout the San Gabriel Valley,” noted President and CEO Sheri Bonner. “We know that empowering young people to advocate for their own health and safety can improve the health outcomes of an entire community. Peer advocates are trusted sources for reproductive health information to fellow students on their school campuses, and are trained to advocate for medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education and access to comprehensive health care services in their community.”
This school year, the peer advocates administered a survey and garnered about 700 responses, in which 75% of students said they think teenagers have unprotected sex because they don’t have access to condoms. That, along with data that show adolescents are at the highest risk for sexually transmitted diseases and infections (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2018 that adolescents ages 15-24 account for nearly half of the 20 million new cases of STDs each year), convinced the group to try to provide free condom access at their high schools.
Though the subject is controversial, the students have fought to open the conversation with school administrators.
“Planned Parenthood has given me the ability to react better and know exactly how I could better help my peers,” said Marshall Fundamental School senior Riona Biery, who persuaded the school to allow access to condoms at the health office. “Even though people don’t talk about it, there are a lot of instances where high schoolers need the support from Planned Parenthood but they don’t always know where to go or who to talk to.”
Many of the peer advocates are interested in working in public health someday, either as nurses or doctors, but others see themselves taking on careers in public policy.
Former peer advocate and Pasadena resident Maya Saporito has gone on to major in organizational change and psychology at Northwestern University. She’s become a member of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action on campus, and still uses the lessons she learned as a peer advocate to help people understand what the nonprofit can offer.
“I knew I wanted to help people, I just didn’t know how. … Planned Parenthood helped me shape that. I felt like I finally found a place where I belonged; it helped me to find my voice,” said Saporito, who was a peer in the first year of the program. “To see the impact I could make at just 15 was really empowering. I know I had an impact on my peers, we reached a good amount of people. Reproductive justice and women’s rights are still huge passions of mine.”