Sex is an awkward subject.
True, the dreaded “talk” is something neither a parent nor child wants to deal with. But it’s a whole lot easier to discuss with a friend.
Family Tree Clinic’s Keeping It Safe and Sexy (KISS) program does just this.
University of Minnesota student Korrina Griffith is a former KISS student educator who went through the program three years ago. KISS is a summer program for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual teens and allies to train as sexual health educators. As part of the curriculum, they learn about sexual health issues and how to educate their peers on what they’ve learned.
“It was kind of scary to talk about it at first with people you don’t really know,” Griffith said.
Soon she was answering her peers’ questions about birth control, among other adolescent concerns.
“I was debunking myths, and I was surprised that I actually got the question about Mountain Dew,” said Griffith, referring to the common misconception that Mountain Dew kills sperm cells. (It doesn’t.)
“I’ve given sex talks to my younger cousins because my aunts and uncles are like, ‘You know how to do this!’ And I’ve also actually helped my mom with questions. So that’s (ages) 13 to 50.”
The KISS classroom sessions are designed to make students feel safe and comfortable.
“We try to get people to laugh a little bit, because laughing makes people feel good,” said Lindsey Hoskins, Family Tree Clinic’s community education manager. “We do bonding right away. Talking about values, acknowledging that everyone will have different values, and that’s OK. Everyone can feel like, ‘I will be accepted here.’”
People want to feel comfortable talking about sex, Hoskins added, so it doesn’t take much to get them engaged. Only one week into the program, students become comfortable with each other, sharing personal experiences and having a blast, she said.
The KISS group is made up of eight to ten students, ages 14 to 18. Participants are paid for education sessions they conduct with friends, peers and even family.
“I think there is such a need for it because it’s important that friends talk to friends about this. Because parents and teachers aren’t talking about it,” Griffith said. “They get their information from their friends. It’s good for the people who are super educated in this area to share the real information. It’s just so important to have the peer part of it.”
Family Tree Clinic also brings sex education to underserved populations they have identified, such as LGBT students or those who are deaf, blind or hard of hearing.
Often times in school health classes, LGBT teens are not addressed, or if they are, it’s as more of a “side note,” Hoskins said.
“Others,” adds Family Tree community educator Tatum Bishop. Often they are dismissed from the conversation early and are left with unanswered questions.
“We made the program, and we wanted to target LGBT teens just because there wasn’t a program specifically for them … so we just kind of made our own,” Hoskins said.
Now Griffith knows more about sexual health than she would have thought possible. She even has to correct her college professors if they’re misinformed or don’t know the answer to questions.
“It was just so awesome to know I could be a resource for some of my really good friends,” Griffith said. “In the long term, it’s actually affected my career choice. I want to go into sexual health therapy and marriage-family counseling. I’ve joined groups at the U of M in terms of sexual health, and I’ve been doing a bunch of volunteering at different places. I have so much fun doing it and I help so many people.”
Family Tree Clinic celebrated its 43rd birthday in August. The program was started by Macalester students and alumni who were responding to a gonorrhea outbreak in the community.
From there, the clinic has evolved and grown to provide quality, confidential reproductive and sexual health care services to diverse communities. Year round, they serve more than 10,000 community members through various outreach presentations.
Discrimination of any kind is also not tolerated—whether based on race, creed, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status or disability. Family Tree Clinic is about serving as a resource for everyone, Hoskins said.
“At Family Tree, everybody is really, really excited about the work that we do, and really excited about doing the best that we can,” Bishop said. “I think that it just keeps it driving forward every day, and I think that adds to a feeling of … ‘goodness’ when you walk in.”
Gabriel Blackburn is a senior at St. Paul Conservatory For Performing Artists. His story on Family Tree Clinic is part of a package by 12 high school students who participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s residential Intermediate Camp from June 15 to June 27.