By Christina Whiting
For many, the word mentor brings to mind teachers, elders, grandparents, older siblings and parents. In Homer, four teenagers are mentoring their peers on healthy relationships to provide peer-to-peer education and to determine if peer education is as effective, if not more effective, than youth learning from someone older.
“The relationships youth make with mentors help them make transitions in their developing lives, whether that is from middle school to high school, from friendship to friendship, or with family and community relationships,” said Anna Meredith, R.E.C. Room Youth Program Manager.
The statewide peer research project is called Alaska Promoting Health Among Teens (PHAT). At the heart of the program, peer educators teach their peers about healthy relationships, abstinence, safe sex and many other issues relevant to teens’ lives. The statewide mission is to reduce the rates of HIV/STDs and unplanned pregnancies, while promoting healthy relationships for at-risk youth ages 14-19 in Alaska.
In addition to employing a full-time PHAT program coordinator and a part-time PHAT peer coordinator, AKPHAT employs four to five PHAT peer educators. Homer’s team includes program coordinator Anna Meredith, peer coordinator Doug Koester and peer educators Jonas Noomah, Sierra Moskios, Hailey Hughes and Zoe Story.
Using a peer-to-peer education model, the teens utilize the AKPHAT curriculum and go through extensive training in the areas of public health and teen health.
“In addition to training on the curriculum, peer educators are trained in topics including cultural competency and awareness, public speaking, engaging parents, digital/media training, adverse childhood experiences, non-violent communication, adolescent brain development, bullying, suicide prevention and much more,” Koester said.
The teens’ job is to teach the curriculum, recruit teens to take the class and teach the classes. Classes take place outside of the schools in community settings, with at least two peer educators working together to teach small groups of students. Because the class sizes are small, the instruction takes the form of conversation verses lecturing.
The goal is to teach nine classes a year. Classes typically take place over the course of three days, five hours a day and the program runs all year long.
“In the last two years, we have taught the curriculum to over 80 youth,” Koester said. “Another 80 or so have participated by being in a control group ” Koester said.
Homer’s peer educators have taught in Homer, Unalakleet, Seldovia, Port Graham, Nanwalek and Anchorage.
Many, but not all of their peers, are willing to listen.
“Some kids think they already know everything we’re teaching,” Mosikos said.
And many, but not all parents, are happy to have their kids teach or be taught.
“There is a common misconception that taking a sex education class will increase a youth’s chances of having sex,” Koester said. “Actually, many studies have shown that the more a youth is educated about sexual health, the less likely they are to engage in sexual activity and when they do, it’s a safer experience.”
The peer educators know that they are succeeding when students actively engage in open and honest conversations.
“I knew a student who came to class who was hesitant because he thought he already knew about everything we were going to teach,” Hughes said. “When the class was over, he told me he learned a lot and was glad he’d participated.”
Story takes her work with the program very seriously. It has also inspired her.
“This project has the potential to change the way sex education is taught in Alaska and beyond,” she said. “I have always been very interested in women’s health and now I’m thinking about becoming an OB-GYN.”
For Hughes and Noomah, the program opens doors to communication, allowing them to talk to people they might not otherwise get to.
The statewide AKPHAT project is funded by an Office of Adolescent Health Federal grant, which is part of the State of Alaska’s Department of Public Health education and outreach. The project began in 2011 and will be completed in 2015 and includes the communities of Bethel, Anchorage and Homer.
The Homer project is managed by the Youth Resource and Enrichment Co-op (R.E.C. Room) whose mission is to facilitate healthy relationships, health education, and healthy choices for youth in and around Homer.
“I’ve watched these young men and women transform from young passionate employees into young professional educators,” Meredith said.
The data collected from the AKPHAT program is being evaluated by the University of Anchorage Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.
“Once the data is all collected and evaluated, we hope to use it as a means to garner more support for using a peer to peer model, to more effectively teach sex education and healthy relationships throughout Alaska and elsewhere,” Koester said.
For more information on the PHAT program, contact Anna Meredith at the R.E.C. Room, 235-6736, visit homerrecroom.org or stop in Monday to Friday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“Every time we work with other teens, we have an impact on their life,” Story said. “There is no greater feeling
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