When he left home for the streets of Hollywood six years ago at age 12, Levi Brett found a labyrinth of horrors.
Besides the daily anxiety of seeking food and shelter, he saw other teen-agers shot, stabbed and gang-raped. Friends died of AIDS and drug overdoses. He begged, stole, numbed himself with drugs and once contemplated suicide.
Now 18, Brett still roams his old Hollywood haunts about three times a week, but with a black pouch bulging with safe-sex and drug-needle-cleansing materials such as bleach kits, condoms and other paraphernalia.
He has a new life as a peer outreach counselor--someone who advises others his age--at the Los Angeles Youth Network, a shelter and services organization for homeless youths in Hollywood.
"It's not what I say to them, but who I am--they know me, the way I communicate," Brett said of the youths he counsels. "Every time I go out, I accomplish something. They're becoming more educated. They now ask which condoms are better and whether their bleach kits can be reused--questions which they wouldn't ask an adult."
The Los Angeles Youth Network is just one of a growing number of innovative programs on the Westside that employ teen-agers to counsel their peers on such issues as HIV prevention; teen pregnancy; tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide prevention.
Although formalized teen peer counseling and education--initially employed against drug use--have existed for decades, the practice has been growing in popularity and has spread to other subjects.
High schools are using peer tutors for academic help in math and English. School administrators have set up on-campus health clinics employing peer educators. Social agencies are increasingly using teen-agers to counsel gang members and mediate disputes.
Alex, a homeless 17-year-old temporarily staying at the Los Angeles Youth Network, prefers counseling from his peers rather than from adults.
In a comment typical of others his age, he said: "I feel uncomfortable around older people. I'd rather talk to someone my own age who understands and is going through what I'm going through--someone I can trust."
The recent proliferation of peer education projects on the Westside mirrors a national trend.
About 40,000 peer education programs exist in schools nationwide, up from an estimated 20,000 five years ago, and such programs are growing in colleges, social agencies and church ministries, said Barbara Varenhorst, a member and former president of the National Peer Helpers Assn., a national network of peer programs based in North Carolina.
Many experts believe the expansion of peer counseling is filling a void in the lives of today's youths. Shattered families, drug and alcohol abuse, and parental neglect have robbed many young people of a support network for their problems. Advocates say the surge in peer programs is also a compensation for the increasingly disparate ratio in many schools between students and adult counselors or mentors.
"I've worked with young people for many years and know that adolescence is a lonely time," said Varenhorst, who started the country's first in-school peer counseling program in Palo Alto in 1970. "But never have I seen so much loneliness as in this particular period. There are no adults around and peers are raising peers. Some schools have one adult counselor per 1,000 kids."
Statistics point to the gulf between teen-agers and their parents and other adults.
A 1986 Emory University Medical School survey widely cited by experts asked 600 Atlanta-area high school seniors who they would talk to about an alcohol or drug problem. Seventy percent said they would tell a friend, 20% said they would go to their parents and 8% said they would tell siblings.
There is a paucity of scientific research comparing the effectiveness of teen peer counseling and education programs to programs that use adults to teach teen-agers. But many educators believe a mountain of anecdotal evidence proves the value of peer education, especially regarding sexual and reproductive health issues.
"Teens identify with teens and get most of their information and advice from their friends, not their parents," said Wendy Arnold, a founder of the Peer Education Program of Los Angeles in West Los Angeles, which educates teen-agers on AIDS-related issues. "Mainstream educators are realizing that important information hasn't been getting through and that the vehicle of communication has to change. The time is ripe to bring in innovative strategies."
In today's world, what youths don't know can kill them. As a result, many peer programs concentrate on disseminating information on such topics as AIDS and safe sex.