Smart talk from the 'sex ed girl'

June 11, 2008 

SEXED COUNSELOR112

Andreina Cordova, second from right, leads a game of bingo with male and female anatomical reproductive parts. Cordova has been doing sex-ed counseling since she was 12.

ANNE CUSACK — TPN

Andreina Cordova has a 15-minute window to change a life, just a few moments between the dismissal of classes and the beginning of soccer practice.

She wants to speak to anyone who will listen -- about making smart decisions about sex.

She plunges into the throng of students on the sidewalk outside King/Drew Magnet High School of Science and Medicine in Los Angeles.

She has memorized pages and pages of information on sex education and sexually transmitted diseases. She’s ready to pass out cards from Planned Parenthood, listing services and clinics. She is also armed with condoms.

Andreina is 15. She’s been attending Planned Parenthood sex education events since the age of 13. She had just finished eighth grade when she became one of the youngest students ever hired to be a peer advocate in a program whose goal is to reduce teen pregnancy and STD rates.

And that may be why some of the kids at school assume certain things about Andreina.

“People are like, just because she does this peer counseling, she is going to have sex like that,” said Bryanna Rivera, who is also 15 and a friend.

But they don’t know Andreina.

Popular culture works against anyone trying to push safe sex or abstinence. Sexually charged advertising floods TV; MySpace and Facebook are saturated with come-ons from and for adolescents. Thanks to the tabloids, updates on 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy appear almost daily.

More than 360,000 adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease each year in Los Angeles County. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, 5,113 L.A. County girls younger than 18 gave birth -- 3.4 percent of all births that year.

Andreina does her outreach at the epicenter of the crisis, South L.A., which has the county’s highest percentage of teen births and rates of sexually transmitted diseases, according to the county’s Department of Public Health.

The statistics aren’t just numbers to Andreina; they represent the teenagers sitting next to her in class, on the school bus, at her house.

“These are people that I know,” Andreina said.

Asked why a 15-year-old would risk insults, humiliation and rejection to counsel peers on birth control and STDs, Andreina summons the memory of a middle-school classmate who became pregnant and dropped out.

A few weeks after her classmate left school, Andreina attended her first safe-sex awareness event hosted by Planned Parenthood.

She quickly understood her goal: to educate teenagers on how to make wise decisions.

“I mean, I was in middle school. They don’t teach you a lot about sex there,” Andreina said.

But first she had one large hurdle to clear: her parents.

Cars pack the driveway of Andreina’s house on a Sunday morning. Inside, three generations of Cordova women gather along with Andreina’s father, Andres, 50. The conversation among the Salvadoran American family alternates between English and Spanish.

Andreina, whom the family calls “Gina,” is the youngest of five sisters; four still live with their parents and maternal grandmother, Carmen. All the sisters are in high school or college, and four of them, including Andreina, want to work in health care.

Though the sisters regard their parents as traditional, Roman Catholic and strict, both Andres and his wife, Ana Lillian, 49, demur.

When she asked to attend her first Planned Parenthood event, Andreina said, “my parents at first didn’t know what I was doing.” So when Andres said yes, her sisters were shocked.

But Andres explained: “My parents never talked to me about sex. So many of us back in El Salvador just had to figure out things on our own, from our friends usually.”

On the day before school closed for a three-week break, Andreina stopped about 12 students on the campus’ sidewalks. The girls seemed receptive; the boys, amused.

She briefly spoke with two classmates. The 16-year-old boys listened intently, their grins fading as she rattled off a list of STDs to watch out for. They asked about the symptoms of chlamydia -- pain during urination or in the groin area -- with one of them adding: “Can you keep this private?” Andreina nodded.

“You know where to find me if you have more questions,” she added.

Andreina’s work is anchored in Planned Parenthood’s Ujima Program, which preaches more abstinence and less sex. At least “until you know what you’re getting into and the consequences,” Andreina said.

The program was launched in 2002 after research indicated that teens were more likely to feel comfortable discussing sex with peers instead of parents, said Mary-Jane Wagle, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. All peer advocates undergo three days of training and must pass a test before they are hired into the program. Andreina and the other participants meet once a week in a small clinic in South L.A. to discuss safe-sex issues and coordinate events.

Andres Cordova seems impressed with his daughter, who has become known to some as the “sex ed girl.”

“There’s an age for everything,” he said. “I worried Andreina was too young to know about sex and thought, ‘Well, if one knows how to do something, there could arise the curiosity to try it out.’ ”

He paused, looking at her seated on the couch, and added, “But I trust her to do the right thing.”

Andres said Andreina’s work as a peer advocate was more of a health issue than a moral one, and thinks that learning about the consequences of unprotected sex has actually pushed Andreina closer to abstinence.

“There’s a time in my life that’s going to come when I’ll have to make some of the same decisions I’m counseling for,” she said, “but it’s not the right time for me yet. And I’m comfortable with that.”

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