WORDS: Merab Favorite
PICTURES: Gabrielle Versmessen
Health education for high schoolers. Could there be a more frustrating topic? For parents, it invokes visions of awkward conversations filled with bad analogies like birds and bees, an egg sizzling in a frying pan, and of course, that oversimplified slogan, “Just Say No.”
For teens, it’s even worse. The gut wrench that comes when the teacher asks them to answer an embarrassing question. The peer pressure to do something risky. The raging hormones that can’t be ignored. Oh, and then there are those cringe-worthy conversations with adults.
Educating teens about healthy choices has come a long way in the last couple of generations, especially in Manatee County. While awkward dialogues between adults and youth can never be avoided entirely, students themselves are taking the initiative and educating their classmates on healthy choices.
Healthy Teens, Founded in 2011, is helping to reduce risky behaviors among youth and promote positive alternatives by providing them with knowledge and skills to make informed choices about their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The organization accepts students in ninth through twelfth grades to become Teen Health Educators, then encourages them to go out in the community and talk to other children about the benefits of making healthy choices.
Teen Health Educators receive extensive training on various topics like substance abuse, vaping, and mental health, provided by Healthy Teens through local, state, and even national experts on their topic. They then provide peer education and mentoring through youth-serving community partners, with a focus on at-risk youth.
“Teens don’t want to hear advice from their parents and teachers,” said Mary Ann Legler, the founder of Healthy Teens who established the Teen Health Educator Program in 2014. “We knew early on that if we wanted this to work, the information would need to come from someone their own age.”
Grace Domonkos, a Teen Health Educator, says: “Basically, we’re a group of teenagers going around the community speaking to other teenagers and children younger than us, explaining health topics, addiction, and sexual education. Just trying to inform our youth because teens will listen to other teens.”
Once they graduate, Teen Health Educators can apply to become Young Adult Leaders, receiving wages for their efforts along with additional leadership training. They also get career and education advice and references, and recommendations from an adult mentor.
“We have a high expectation for teens when joining the program, we ask them to really commit and invest, and they get the same back from us,” said Jonathan Evans, Executive Director of Healthy Teens. “We expect a lot from them, and we give a lot to them, including nationally-recognized training from experts, effective communication tools, and a path for the future.”
Healthy Teens originally started as a campaign to curb teenage pregnancy rates. The program was the brainchild of a group of community leaders who were passionate about reducing the rate of teen pregnancy and the negative outcomes associated with it. According to the Florida Department of Health, the number peaked in 2007, with 585 babies born to teen moms in Manatee County. Since then, that number has decreased by nearly 70 percent.
“While the adults were trying to figure out what to do about the problem, the teen pregnancy rates just kept going up,” said Legler. “Finally, in 2010, the stars aligned, and a group really started trying to reduce teen births. We also quickly discovered that if teens are drinking and taking drugs, they are probably at a higher risk of having unprotected sex.”
Realizing that tackling an issue like teen pregnancy would be more effectively addressed by also looking at substance abuse, mental health, and overall well-being, the group molded their purpose to encompass all aspects of teen health.
While Healthy Teens still provides support to the School District of Manatee County’s Teenage Parent Program, which helps teen parents graduate from high school, the focus of the work has broadened to include over 30 topics. The variety has allowed Healthy Teens to be flexible, adapting to the issue of the moment.
“Part of remaining on top of current issues is asking our youth what’s going on in their schools,” said Evans. “They are usually a year or two ahead of what the adults are focused on. Vaping and electronic-nicotine devices (ENDS) are a good example of that.”
Healthy Teens included e-cigs in its topics after area teens began complaining that their school bathrooms were restricted due to student vaping. The issue received national attention when a 2012-2013 study showed that most teens began vaping using flavored tobacco, spurring concerns that tobacco companies were targeting children. In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of flavored e-cigs (other than tobacco and menthol-flavored). Since then, the number of teens using e-cigs has steadily decreased.
While alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases, and substance use are still important topics, mental health issues have emerged as a primary issue that is troubling teens. For the last few years, community leaders have grown concerned about the amount of youth experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression. In 2019, a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 20 percent of children had considered suicide. Then the pandemic occurred, leaving many teens feeling even more isolated and traumatized
“We can’t brush it off because they are so young, and they’re in a fragile place in their life,” said Evans. “Their brains are still developing, and they desperately need our support.”
In an effort to respond to the issue, Healthy Teens partnered with SRQ Strong to develop a local youth trauma training team, Trauma Leadership Corps (TLC). An existing group of Teen Health Educators and Young Adult Leaders formed the core training team, supporting other youth-serving providers in responding to stress and trauma. The project’s purpose is also to raise community awareness about the power of youth peer-to-peer training and support. Funding for the TLC is provided in part by the Paul and Anne Finstad Fund 1 of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Legler sees this initiative as the perfect opportunity to help community youth increase resilience.
When asked how Healthy Teens has impacted her life, Yadelas Gonzales-Sanchez said: “I get to step out of my comfort zone and talk to other people. I have anxiety, so it’s very hard for me to hold a conversation. I think it’s been very good practice for that.”
Grace Domonkos agrees. She smiled: “It has really improved my public speaking skills.”
Is there anything these fearless youth leaders can’t do? Tackling these very important issues and bridging communication between adults, youth, and community leaders is an inspiring way for teens to become more invested in their community. Teens moved to join these efforts in promoting health and wellness through peer-to-peer support can apply to join the program.
- Visit www.healthyteensmanatee.com and click on the “Teen Health Educator” tab to access the online application form before the August 31 deadline.