By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Emma Uva, a 17-year-old senior at Montclair High School, would often complain to her mother about what she was learning at school about sex. 

“We have a pretty good health and sex education, but it’s still not as comprehensive as I would like it to be,” Uva said. “It always felt like we were being scared or guilt-tripped in school. And I think a lot of other students I’ve talked to have the same kind of sentiment.” 

Her mother told her about a new program she heard about on Facebook —  Teen LINKS (Leaders Impacting Neighbors with Knowledge of Sexuality), from Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey.

“[My mom] found this program where I get to learn about the topics that I thought we were lacking in a comprehensive way and a stigma-free way,” Uva said. 

The program is designed to train high school students to educate their peers about sexual health. As described on Planned Parenthood’s website, it “provides high school students with the opportunity to grow into young leaders, educators and activists within their own community.” Participants from the program can become paid interns who conduct workshops for their communities and do outreach through social media.

Bethany Diaz, a Planned Parenthood health educator, said the peer education typically happens through after-school programs and school organizations. For instance, Teen LINKS interns work with a girls group at a school in Newark. The program doesn’t currently have any partnership with schools in Montclair, but several program participants have come from Montclair over the last decade or more. 

Uva participated online in the Teen LINKS last year, but she felt she didn’t get as complete of an experience in the program as she’d like, because it was held all-remotely in the pandemic. 

So she returned this year, hoping to become one of the peer sex educators.

“I was very excited to find a program that would allow me to get the information I wanted and try to spread it,” Uva said. 

Teen LINKS has been part of Planned Parenthood since 1979, with training sessions available at the organization’s Montclair Health Center for the past 13 years. That’s where Uva took part this summer.

The program includes 26 high school students from Essex and Passaic Counties who spend eight days in training over the summer. The students are given two presentations a day about topics such as safe sex practices, birth control and the differences among sexual transmitted infections. The lessons go beyond that, including tips on public speaking and discussions of social justice. The students are trained how to engage others with presentations, how to keep a conversation going when speaking in front of a class or in a small group and how to create after-school events for the students in participating schools. 

Diaz said it is important to have students explain this information to other students, because teens listen to other teens.

“That’s why we do Teen LINKS — because me, the professional, can go into a school and talk about condoms and pregnancy all day long, but it works better when you have young people talking to young people,” Diaz said.

The students are then interviewed to be hired for the internships, which last a year, and involve about 25 hours of work per month.

“This is a paid opportunity and so it is pretty much a part-time job for them,” Diaz said. And it connects students who might not otherwise be ready to enter into the workforce with a form of employment, she said.

Diaz said she thinks this school year, in-person learning will help students create more social connections with their peers, she said.

“A lot of programs that weren’t part of the core curriculum [in many schools] had to get cut because of COVID,” Diaz said. “We are really lucky now to be able to bring this material back into school, whether that’s through extracurricular-like clubs after school, or if a district contracts us to deliver education during a health class. The students are pretty enthusiastic about getting to do things outside of home.” 

Uva doesn’t know yet if she’ll be selected to be one of the students traveling around Essex and Passaic County schools, talking to other students about healthy sexual practices. She said even if she doesn’t get the internship, she will continue spreading the information she learned during the training. 

“My goal would be to take a lot of the knowledge that I learned here and bring it back to my school and maybe try to start like a club or something,” Uva said. “Or to get together some group of students to kind of spread this knowledge around.”