A group of Visalia activists is turning prom night into an opportunity to help solve Tulare County’s staggering teen pregnancy problem.
As hundreds of teenagers gathered in their finery at the Visalia Convention Center the night of May 11, many of them were greeted by volunteers from ACT for Women and Children bearing giveaway “safety kits” intended to help young people make better reproductive decisions.
“Tulare County has always been one of the highest teen pregnancy rates,” said Michelle Rivera, program coordinator and sexual health educator for ACT. “There’s been a decline (statewide), but it’s still one of the highest even though there’s been a decline.”
To help that rate continue to shrink, ACT volunteers aimed to hand out some 2,000 condoms to those who turned out for the prom in a program known as “Don’t Let a Hot Date. …”
The safety kits, however, didn’t just provide prophylactics.
“Safety kits contain condoms, and then they have packets of information on how to use a condom correctly, as well as resources on suicide awareness, access to reproductive health services that are teen-friendly, LGBTQ resources and so forth,” Rivera said.
While most of the children attending the Visalia Unified School District’s multi-school prom are not yet sexually active, the statistics show many of them are. In Tulare County, 48.6 out of every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 end up pregnant. That rate is nearly triple the statewide rate of 17 per 1,000 and more than double the national rate of 20.3 per 1,000.
Early and unwanted pregnancies aren’t the only sexual danger Tulare County’s youth face. Sexually-transmitted disease is also on the rise.
“There’s also been a huge incline in chlamydia and gonorrhea here in the Valley,” Rivera said.
Many of the volunteers handing out the ACT safety kits are themselves teenagers, adding a peer-to-peer aspect to the effort to stem teen pregnancy and disease. There’s also a concerted effort to educate teens about their sexuality and to encourage healthy decision-making.
“We encourage them to make their own informed decisions. They do hold a lot of power,” Rivera said. “They are very complex beings. They do understand issues in very multidimensional ways, and so you want to give them that information so they can make those decisions themselves.”
Now in its 10th year, the “Don’t Let a Hot Date…” has been well received by both prom-goers and their parents, said Gina Rodriguez, a program director for ACT who has been involved in the safety kit handout for the last three years.
“I think I’ve had one parent just ask what we were doing,” Rodriguez said. “Most adults and kids thank us.”
Well Received Effort
Yet there still is some shock value associated with handing out condoms, she said, even if there is no hostility. The response to the giveaway from teens is generally mature, though they are often taken aback.
“For the most part they get surprised,” Rodriguez said.
Originally known as “Don’t Let a Hot Date Turn into a Due Date,” ACT has shortened the name to include non-heterosexuals and to avoid shaming those who have become pregnant as teens.
Making sure the prom night giveaway and other reproductive health programs–such as Teen Success Inc, a support group for teen mothers designed to bolster higher education and child development–are as inclusive as possible is key to keeping teenagers safe. ACT’s emphasis is on fact-based sexual education, which is not always available.
“I definitely see the importance of it,” said Rivera. “I didn’t get adequate or comprehensive education until I joined ACT. I’ve seen how it can change and save lives.”
While handing out condoms does acknowledge the fact many of Tulare County’s teens are sexually active, it does not mean ACT ignores other ways of avoiding teen pregnancy, including sexual abstinence.
“We provide services and programs for youth no matter what path they choose,” Rodriguez said. “All people should decide if, when and how large, and have those families grow up healthy.”
Much of the work on reproductive education performed by ACT occurs in area classrooms during weeks-long programs. It’s in these venues that more detailed information is presented to teens and other options besides birth control are discussed.
“We also talk about values. This is where abstinence comes in,” said Rivera. “We talk about how to have conversations about delaying if you’re not ready. One of the biggest ones has been consent boundaries.”
ACT’s reproductive programs are also a platform for challenging myths about sexuality and correcting misinformation.
“It’s astonishing what these kids know. Because they get so much information, especially from the Internet, there’s a lot of misinformation,” Rivera said. “It’s (the misinformation) doing things they think will prevent STIs or pregnancies that are actually more detrimental than they would help out.”
The education ACT provides also helps overcome barriers to safe sexual practices and family planning, even acting as a surrogate for sexual and relationship advice that many times is provided at home.
“In a community where it’s very much an immigrant community, it’s (sexual education) very much taboo,” Rivera said. “So, they don’t have an adult or parental figure to talk about how to practice safe sex or anything like that, so they’re talking amongst their friends and it just keeps spreading that misinformation.”
To learn more about ACT for Women and Girls and the programs it offers, visit actforwomenandgirls.org.