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VENICE : Clinics Get Teens to Counsel Teens on Sex

June 15, 1995|CAROL CHASTANG

James So considers himself a worldly 18-year-old. For the last eight months, the Venice High School senior has worked as a peer counselor at the Westside Women's Health Center, talking to other teen-agers about sexually transmitted diseases and handing out condoms.

Yet he was shocked when he saw seventh-graders showing up at the clinic for condoms and birth control pills. "A lot of 13-year-olds came in. That really surprised me," So said, shaking his head. "I expected old people, like 17-year-olds. They're getting younger and younger."

Since last fall, So and four other Venice High school students have participated in the Clinic and Schools Together (CAST) program, which provides work experience to youths interested in health-care careers. The program was developed by Operation USA, a local relief organization, and funded by the California Community Foundation, ARCO, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Candle Foundation, the charitable arm of a Santa Monica-based computer software company.

Robert Gabor of Operation USA said he and a colleague started the program last year after studying the lack of opportunities for economically disadvantaged youth.

Dorsey, Manual Arts and Venice high schools already are CAST sites, and the program will start at Belmont High this fall.

The program was aimed at "middle-of-the-road students who hadn't had a lot of opportunities to prove themselves," Gabor said.

After receiving 40 hours of training from health-care professionals, the students work in nonprofit clinics doing administrative work and providing information on sexually transmitted diseases and family planning. They also hold workshops at their schools, accompanied by Leanne Cole, a teen program coordinator at the women's health center in Santa Monica.

The Venice High students also visit the Third Street Promenade and Venice Beach, passing out information on health center services and condoms for those who ask.

The CAST interns said they were amazed by their peers' ignorance about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. They were also surprised by the students' reluctance to visit the clinic.

"It's fear and embarrassment, and not wanting their parents to find out," said intern Robert Pacheco. During a recent condom demonstration workshop Pacheco held at Venice High, "the kids didn't even want to touch the condom, and some of them giggled," he said. "It's still a touchy subject."

In addition to working about 10 hours a week, earning $5 per hour, the interns meet once a week for workshops on job-hunting strategies, interpersonal relationships and on-the-job etiquette. Interns also go on field trips to university medical centers and attend lectures given by health-care professionals.

Program coordinator Misty Tolbert said that although other local nonprofit organizations hire teen-agers to do similar tasks, "we're unique because we're with the students on a daily basis, supporting and motivating them."

Pacheco said he is disappointed by the reluctance of many adults, including some educators, to discuss sex frankly.

Using teen-agers as peer counselors is the most effective way to educate the public, he said. "The rise of sexually transmitted diseases should turn on a warning light, saying that we should inform our teens."

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