'Sex-ed block party' marks 20th year for health group
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards visits Seattle to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its teen council, which provides peer-to-peer sex education.
Seattle Times staff reporter
High-school students who volunteer for Planned Parenthood's Teen Council get used to being called "the condom ladies." They field text messages from their friends about sexually transmitted diseases and train fellow students about birth control during bus rides to games.
Their knowledge about sex and relationships — built over 200 hours a year of involvement in the council — makes them go-to resources in high school, and lifelong advocates for sexual health and other causes supported by Planned Parenthood.
That's part of the reason their 20-year celebration, a "Sex-ed Block Party" held Saturday in Seattle's Madison Valley, drew Planned Parenthood's national president, Cecile Richards.
She called the program, which started in 1992, "groundbreaking."
The council trains Washington teenagers about anatomy, sexuality and relationships, and then sends them out to talk with their peers.
The goal is to remove the stigma around sex education. No one was blushing at Saturday's celebration. Instead, people were wearing tank tops that said, "I love sex ed."
"It kind of helps bring kids out of their shells so that they can talk about difficult topics," said Marissa Rathbone, who was in the original council and came back for the block party.
Rathbone is a health and safety coordinator in Texas state government. Like other teen-council alumni, she said the program changed her life.
"This program has absolutely gotten me fired up politically," said McCall Hollie, 17, a graduate of The Overlake School in Redmond. She used to ask her mother to turn down National Public Radio, but now she's volunteering for President Obama's re-election campaign. She is planning to study public policy and global health in college.
"When you're comfortable with your sexuality, you're comfortable with a lot of other stuff, too," said Lindsey Rumberger, 18, an Issaquah High School graduate.
As a group, the Teen Council has lobbied the state Legislature and phone-banked and fundraised for Planned Parenthood causes.
In an interview before Saturday's celebration, Richard's said political attacks this year on Planned Parenthood and access to birth control have been a "wake-up call" for younger people.
Planned Parenthood has faced frequent criticism because it provides abortions along with contraceptives and many other health services.
Republicans in Congress have pushed to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and to block federal support for contraception. Meanwhile, the breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would end its grants to Planned Parenthood — only to reverse course under mounting pressure.
With all the controversy, "we've seen a record number of young women and young men who've become active with Planned Parenthood as activists," Richards said.
"I'm completely baffled at why politicians have now made women's health care — both defunding Planned Parenthood, overturning Roe, ending access to birth control — a political issue," she said. "I think it's backfired."
The 20-year celebration drew Richards as a headliner, but there also were bands, a kids' table, a beer garden and information booths in the parking lot of the Planned Parenthood building on East Madison Street.
Richards, whose mother was the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, was a Democratic activist herself before she joined Planned Parenthood in 2006. She came to Planned Parenthood from the office of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, where she was deputy chief of staff.
Besides concerns about cancer screening and preventing unwanted pregnancy, she said Planned Parenthood is seeing an increasing number of young men who want to be tested or treated for STDs.
As for the Teen Council, Richards said the program highlights the importance of "providing young people with information."
And it underscores the role Planned Parenthood plays in the lives of many 18- to 24-year-olds for whom the organization is "the first kind of grown-up doctor's appointment," she said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.