WASHINGTON — District teens Alexis Franklin, 18, and Devon Turner, 19, are getting real with their peers.
They are two teen ambassadors with Metro TeenAIDS, a Capitol Hill-based group that provides resources to help young people fight AIDS and support each other through peer education.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 19 million Americans come down with sexually transmitted infections each year. Roughly half are between the ages of 15 and 24.
But Metro TeenAIDS has discovered a powerful weapon that it thinks can help turn the tide. The organization trains teens to go out into the community to teach others about the risk of sexually transmitted infections and spread the message of safe sex.
Franklin joined the program to help deliver information on safe sex to her peers.
“That is what keeps me going — knowing there is information that I know that could possibly save a life,” Franklin said.
The teen ambassadors speak at schools, clubs and recreation centers — basically, any place where they think they can make a difference.
Turner says the ambassadors don’t hold back when sharing information with their peers.
“What I really try to tell them is guns are not the only things that kill you. Diseases do, too,” Turner said.
He explains the program’s ambassadors can reach peers in a way adults can’t because they speak the same language.
“We keep it real, keep it honest, we just tell it like it is,” he says.
And that can be potent preventive medicine, according to Dr. Lawrence D’Angelo, chief of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s National Medical Center.
“I think that peer pressure for the good can be a tremendous force at appropriately educating other kids about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases,” said D’Angelo, who was one of the founders of Metro TeenAIDS in 1988.
He says groups like Metro TeenAIDS “stand at the forefront” of efforts to reverse the rise in sexually transmitted diseases among youths.
“There is just no one else who can do that work and deliver that message in as convincing a way,” D’Angelo said.
The teen ambassadors speak frankly about the risky behaviors that can result in everything from HIV to gonorrhea and chlamydia. And sometimes, speaking frankly means being descriptive and graphic, which can be uncomfortable.
“It is super touchy, but the reality of it is this is the day and age we are living in,” Franklin said.
She says if more people were willing to talk about it — especially parents — the statistics on sexually transmitted infections would be very different.
At a session with new volunteers, Franklin spoke about the importance of safe sex. Though bleary-eyed from a late night of studying for her high school final exams, she addressed the group with knowledge and passion about the risks of AIDS. Turner also spoke to the group and discussed other sexually transmitted infections, including herpes and certain forms of hepatitis. The session was a blend of street talk and a medical lecture. But it worked with the crowd. When asked to describe his message in one line, Turner said, “Be safe, be protected and stay alive.”