Latinos en Extasis: An Innovative Peer-Based Program with A Lasting Impact
Mission Neighborhood Health Center has a long history of developing innovative healthcare delivery programs to tackle unmet needs in the community. In 1996, a funding opportunity for HIV/AIDS prevention became available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Brenda Storey, MNHC’s Executive Director, was the deputy director of the HIV program/Clinica Esperanza at the time and along with Prevention Director José Ramón Fernandez-Pena they sought to expand MNHC’s impact on the HIV epidemic in the Latino community. Most of the programs available at the time targeted gay men, including those offered through MNHC. Brenda and José Ramón understood that perhaps the best way to interrupt the transmission of HIV was to start early, work with youth and educate them through their peers. They secured the grant and created the peer-model program Latinos en Extasis whose name was chosen to symbolize Latinos living life to the fullest and risk-free.
The goal of the program was for Latino teens to get straight talk and education about sex, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases from young people their own age. Inherent in the curriculum was the understanding that since youth often get more information from their peers than from their parents in adolescence, so it made sense to arm them with the facts so that misinformation could be avoided or corrected.
Teresa Betancourt, the first supervisor of the program, worked closely with outreach worker Jaime Chavez to develop a comprehensive and innovative program. Teresa was a good match for the program as she had a background in adolescent health, experience as a counselor, worked at the SF AIDS hotline and had an innate enthusiasm that meshed well with the teens.
The inaugural group, led by Teresa and Jaime, launched in 1997 and consisted of ten Latino peer educators: 5 boys and 5 girls, ages 14 – 19 years old, half of whom were monolingual Spanish speaking and half who were bilingual. The program kicked off with intensive training of the peer educators by MNHC staff. The educators then recruited local Latino teenagers to join the 8-week program which consisted of classes held twice a week for 2.5 hours. Peer educators received a small stipend and teens, upon graduation from the program, earned a gift certificate to use for movies or music.
The program design ensured that the peer educators would learn how to shoulder responsibility and become empowered. “It was a great feeling to turn the program over to the teens and let them go for it!” said Teresa. “The youth were ready and it showed them that we honored the original goal of the program by allowing it become truly peer-led.”
Assessment of the program was a key component of the grant and the results did not disappoint. Quantitatively, in pre- and post-testing, measures of self-esteem, knowledge, negotiation skills, and understanding of risk factors rose significantly. Qualitatively, the program had a lasting impact on the peer educators as it did in the lives of Xavier Galindo and Nadia Mejia, both peer educators in the inaugural group.
Xavier Galindo learned about Latinos en Extasis in May 1997 from a recruiting sign in the clinic while there as a patient. He was 15 years old and had recently immigrated to the US from Peru. He investigated the opportunity, liked the staff and was open to a new experience. With his limited knowledge of sex, pregnancy or STDs, Xavier welcomed the challenge and opportunity to embrace the program. After a year in the inaugural group, he took a break and then returned and joined another group and ultimately became a trainer for new counselors.
“It was an invaluable experience,” said Xavier. “I learned a lot about public speaking and although I’ve always had an extroverted personality, the experience improved and shaped my skills – how to understand when others understand something and when they don’t. Any nervousness I may have had in the beginning went away. And, I was lucky, too, as it provided a stepping stone to work in HIV prevention and become a part-time receptionist and counselor in Clínica Esperanza at MNHC.”
When asked if he’d recommend the program to youth today, he said, “Yes, in addition to providing important information, it offers kids a space to learn how to be leaders.” Today Xavier is a counselor, event organizer and actor and he credits some of his success to his early training in Latinos en Extasis.
In 1996, at age 14, Nadia Mejia was the first recruit into the program while a patient at the clinic. “I loved it right away, it was such a great opportunity for me,” said Nadia. “We all felt so proud to develop something helpful for teens. I felt like I was part of something meaningful and we were like a little family all supporting one another.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Nadia knew at 8 years old she wanted to be a social worker and do something meaningful. “The program offered a safe and positive place for at-risk kids,” she said. “We provided valuable information about sex that the teens weren’t getting from their parents and gave them a chance to get critical education.”
Today Nadia is a medical social worker at Kaiser Permanente in Hayward and continues to give back to the community. “Being a part of the program was very rewarding and exposed me to how holistic healthcare could be delivered and solidified my desire to choose healthcare for my career,” she said.
In addition to being able help create a robust program that had an impact on teens, some members of the inaugural group had the unique opportunity to attend the World AIDS Conference in South Africa in 2000. After some intensive fundraising that included car washes, bakery and candy sales and grants from local foundations, the teens and their chaperones, Teresa and Brenda, headed to Durban for a week-long exposure to researchers from around the world (and a quick safari) that made a lasting impression.
Although the grant concluded in 2000, the program still thrives today boasting some 105 graduates. Now supported by funding from local organizations including the Department of Children, Youth and their Families (DCYF), and under the leadership of Monique Hosein, the curriculum has expanded to accommodate the needs of today’s teens adding modules such as alcohol/drug abuse, healthy relationships, financial literacy and communications skills.
Latinos en Extasis continues to be an integral part of the MNHC’s Teen Clinic — quite a testament to MNHC’s ongoing commitment to the community.