Ypsilanti Peer to Peer Program Keeps Youth Informed, Safe

BY JASON A. MICHAEL

Statistics have shown that youth ages 13-29 have the highest HIV infection rate in Washtenaw County. In response, a group of young people ages 13-16 in Ypsilanti started a peer mentoring program, Prevent & Prevail, to offer an open exchange of ideas about sex, empowerment, drugs, and prevention for STDs and HIV.

"We found ourselves in the middle of that age range," said Cleo Ku, 20, one of the original group members who helped start the program almost six years ago. "I was 15 at the time. We wanted to figure out how to combat that and teach our peers and ourselves how to protect ourselves."

When Ku learned of the startling statistics he was attending educational sessions by way of Educate Youth, the non-profit arm of Dedicated to Make a Change facilitated by Gail Wolkoff at the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor.

Ku and his peers, along with the help of Wolkoff and a committee of advisors, created the curriculum for Prevent & Prevail themselves. A series of sessions are offered three times a year - in the fall, winter and a condensed summer course. Teen facilitators receive over 20 hours of training before leading a series of information sessions and discussions with their peers.

"They created the program, that's the reason why it is just so amazing," said Wolkoff. "They keep changing it. They keep it up to date."

All of the academic-based programming - S.A.T. Preparation, Prevent and Prevail, Ethics Bowl, and H.O.P.E. - offered is created by youth for their peers. Educate Youth's mission is to connect youth with the world to promote peace, greater understanding, and a love of learning.

Beyond sex, empowerment, drugs and prevention for STDs and HIV, topics include relationships and intimacy, respect and consent, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. This gives LGBT youth information that is important to their lives, but also promotes acceptance and reduces teen-to-teen harassment and bullying due to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

"Most, if not all of us, were LGBT," said Ku. "So that part had to be in it. That's a big part."

There were things about the LGBT community that high school student Tenaya Robinson never understood.

"Being able to hear some people's stories was really effective," said Robinson, 17, who recently became a facilitator for the program. "It made me a lot more aware about the way a person identifies, that I should use correct pronouns. That's something we do at every meeting - ask people to say your name and your preferred pronouns. It can be confusing at first. Sometimes your appearance might not fit the way that you view yourselves. That's something I try to be cautious about and never make assumptions about."

Robinson stressed that all of their discussions are held in a safe, confidential, fun and inclusive environment.

"They have a better understanding of what they can do and their options and how to better understand what they're going through," she said. "They're in an environment where they can raise questions about a lot of things you can't talk about in public."

Ku, who chaperones for the program now, said it "fills a gap where a lot of school systems are lacking. It's very empowering for youth to have this information. It's not something that they get from school usually, especially when it comes to LGBT facts and things like that. That's another one of the reasons we created it. We saw our school sex ed really lacking in those areas," he said.

While it would be ideal to implement the Prevent & Prevail program into local school systems, organizers have been met with resistance.

"We really want to. That would be really great. But we haven't had any luck with that," said Ku.

Until then, the program sessions are free and available to anyone ages 12-17.

"The cool thing about the program is a lot of these kids are talking to peers so they know what's going in the school, what drugs the kids are doing, for example. They can take the misinformation and turn it into real information," said Wolkoff. "My motto is 'Just Say Know.' They can say 'no' or they can do something else if they 'know.' That's a lot of the approach."

Wolkoff credits former first lady Nancy Reagan and her "Just Say No" campaign in the '80s for inspiring this.

"At the time I was teaching and I was like to say 'no' is the fastest way to get kids to do something," recalled Wolkoff. "Then there was the drugs and after that the whole war on drugs and then the whole HIV information came out and that nightmare. And it's like, these kids need to know."

The next Prevent & Prevail series begins Aug. 7. For more information on the program visit the website https://educateyouthypsi.org/programs/prevent-and-.


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