Teen mentors to target sex
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
SPRING HILL -- Even though she's only 18, Heather Regateiro sounds world weary when talking about the sexual behavior of her peers.
"When I was in high school, I heard younger teens talking, 'I've slept with this person and that person.' They think it's cool -- without a condom," said Regateiro, a Springstead High School graduate who attends Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"I know people with STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) having a tough time because they didn't have anyone to talk to," Regateiro said. "A lot of people don't understand it's so easy to get pregnant."
In 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, 13.2 percent of live births in Hernando County were to teenagers, compared with 12 percent statewide, 14.2 percent in Citrus County and 12.3 percent in Pasco County, according to the state Department of Health.
A year earlier, 12.4 percent of live births in Hernando were to teenagers.
So when the opportunity arose for Regateiro to serve as a teen mentor on these issues, she jumped.
"I think it's better for a teen to speak to another teen, because they listen to their parents all the time -- 'Safe sex. Don't have sex,"' she explained. "I want to show them certain ways to say no."
Mary Benedett, adolescent health education specialist for the Hernando County Health Department, said she hopes the department's new Resource Teens program will teach teenagers about pregnancy and STD prevention, refusal skills and reproductive health.
More, she added, it will focus on related health matters such as eating disorders, substance abuse and relationships.
"(Preventing) teen pregnancy is our main goal, but so many things impact that," Benedett said. "Frequently, kids will get high or get drunk or whatever, and then put themselves at risk. We're trying to make (the program) well rounded."
She plans to pattern Resource Teens on the successful Students Working Against Tobacco program. Teenagers will be trained as peer educators and then go into the community to give other teens specific information about sexual activity and what could happen as a result.
"We have had some surveys. ... A lot of kids have expressed interest in either being a peer educator or having a peer educator be made available to them," she said. "Kids listen to other kids when they won't listen to adults."
And the "just say no" method has given way to the "here's why you should be careful" effort, Benedett said.
"Saying no is great, and abstinence is great, if a teen will make that choice," she explained. "But rather than just being told, if you have the reasons and some support for saying no, that gives a little more reason."
She agreed with Regateiro that the need is growing in Hernando County.
In 2001, the county had its first recorded instances of 14-year-old mothers giving birth, she said, and she was aware of at least one birth in 2002 to a 12-year-old mother. Full statistics for 2002 are not yet available. The county had 165 teens give birth in 2001, up from 146 in 2000.
Benedett said as a general rule, about three times as many girls get pregnant as have babies.
The county also saw a rise in the number of teens contracting sexually transmitted diseases, she said, with some patients as young as 12.
She hopes Resource Teens will help change that trend.
So does Regateiro.
"I know there's a lot of younger teens out there that don't understand the reasons why they should be having safe sex," she said. "I just want to spread the information to as many teenagers as I can."
-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
First meeting set
Resource Teens will have its organizational meeting at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hernando County Health Department, 7465 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. For information, call Mary Benedett at 754-4067, ext. 128.
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