Hearing a message about safer sex, suicide, or substance abuse from an adult often makes teenagers and preteens roll their eyes, but that reaction may change when the message comes from someone closer to their age.
That's the idea behind the Health Ambassadors peer-to-peer program recently launched by the Corner Health Center, 47 N. Huron St. in Ypsilanti.
"I think it's really important to have young people teach other young people," says Cecilia Aguilar, 21, one of more than two dozen young people who have gone through training to become Health Ambassadors. "It can come off judgey or preachy when adults are talking about safe sex. It's better to talk to someone you know who is the same age as you, somebody you can connect with, who is going through the same things at the same time."
Created by young people for young people
Jen MacLeod, a behavioral health coordinator for Corner Health who oversees the program, says the Health Ambassadors curriculum had already been created by two previous interns when she was hired at the health center. The program is funded in part through a grant from the United Way of Washtenaw County.
Ambassadors ages 16 to 25 go through eight to 16 hours of training over one or two days before they're ready to connect with peers.
The curriculum touches on six core areas: mental health and culture, stereotypes, and stigma; suicide prevention; opioid and alcohol use; sexually-transmitted infections and sexual health; healthy relationships and pregnancy prevention; and diet and nutrition.
Each module is broken down into activities that take a specific number of minutes, but they are designed to be flexible. Health ambassadors could speak about several topics in one afternoon-long workshop, or just cover one or two in a shorter session. They can also shorten a module by skipping one of the suggested activities.
For instance, with suicide prevention, the health ambassadors might do an exercise on "Why I matter," says Corner Health Center intern Abby Allman.
"The person leading the activity would pass around colored paper and say that participants can draw an image or write anything about why you matter," Allman says.
The facilitator would then play uplifting music for three to five minutes, and participants would share their image or words with a small group of three or four peers. Then, as participants gather again as a larger group, each group can share what they took away from the exercise.
MacLeod says she knows suicide and sexual health are "sensitive topics," and that's one reason agreements with the schools are taking a while to iron out. She says if parents decide that they want a release form to sign before allowing their children to attend, that would be fine. She adds that an adult from Corner Health will always be present during a module on suicide prevention.
"If things take a turn and they need immediate resources, an intern or myself will always be there to defuse the situation," she says.
MacLeod says the topic of suicide prevention has personal meaning for her.
"I was a substitute teacher at one time, and the one year I was at a middle school, there were three suicides," MacLeod says. "When I was coming through school, there was only one in all 12 years, so it was shocking to me, something I wasn't expecting."
Ready to reach out
MacLeod says two cohorts of Health Ambassadors have now been trained. The first had 15 ambassadors, and 12 were in the second group to be trained. None of them have yet had a chance to use their training, but MacLeod says Corner Health is hoping to firm up plans for presentations in local schools early in 2019.
The first cohort was made up mostly of members of the Ypsilanti Community High School football team. They are hoping to make a school presentation soon, after the details are worked out with a school advisor. The tentative plan is to present a topic during a homeroom hour and cover all six subject areas over the course of six or eight weeks.
MacLeod says they will continue to look for young people to train as health ambassadors, as well as continuing to look for community partners and locations that would be a good fit for the ambassador program.
The program already has contacts in Ypsilanti Community Schools, but MacLeod says she would like to reach out to Lincoln Consolidated Schools as well. Aguilar says she'd love to bring the health ambassador message to freshman foreign exchange students at Eastern Michigan University, where she is a senior.
Allman says the program has the potential to reach beyond schools into community groups as well, from Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti to Ozone House or the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor.
MacLeod reiterates that the peer-to-peer model is the heart of the program.
"Instead of it coming from a teacher, it's more relatable coming from someone your own age, who is facing the same problems as you," she says.
Those interested in becoming an ambassador or scheduling a Health Ambassadors presentation may contact MacLeod at [email protected].
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe.