By Danae Verba, BS, SWA | October 9, 2019
REACH Coordinator, LSS Independent Living Services
Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota (LSS), through a partnership with the South Dakota Department of Health, offers a complete range of sexual health education services to communities across the state of South Dakota. I have the amazing opportunity to be one of the individuals that coordinates this work. SRAE, or Sexual Risk Avoidance Education, is the federal designation for abstinence-based education programs, and PREP, or Personal Responsibility Education Program, is the federal designation for programs that cover both abstinence and contraception.
At LSS, we see SRAE and PREP as partners, not competitors. We work with at-risk youth and their guardians to identify the best education program for them, and we put a great deal of effort into making sure our work never shames or stigmatizes. Our goal is always to promote the best possible health outcomes for youth.
LSS REACH—Resources and Education for Adolescents Choosing Healthy Behaviors—combines both SRAE and PREP resources. The funding streams on these programs may be different, but our message is unified—we want to do everything we can to support adolescents in making healthy choices now and becoming healthy adults in the future. I am part of a committed and well-trained team delivering SRAE along with PREP curricula, and it’s working beautifully in our state.
I was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But I spent 15 years in Las Vegas, Nevada, where I got my Biology degree from UNLV and coached a high school swim team. I then moved back to my hometown and got a position as a science teacher. I taught biology lessons where we often talked about issues related to reproduction and health. I’ve been in my current position with LSS for seven months and am lucky to have built a good set of skills to transfer over to sex education.
Even with my biology background, I came in as a newcomer to this work, wide-eyed and ready to learn. I have loved this job from the very first moment. It’s challenging every day. I have learned a ton, and I wake up jazzed about going to work. Being new meant I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how this work should be done. But I brought along my scientist’s mind. I was excited to use approaches that were evidence-based and accurate.
REACH uses Making a Difference! (MAD), an evidence-based, abstinence-focused approach to pregnancy and HIV/STI prevention. We offer this intervention to younger adolescents (ages 10–14). With that age group, our work focuses on helping youth build a sense of self-identity, affirm their self-worth, identify goals, and learn how to discuss their questions and needs with a caring, involved adult: a parent, guardian, aunt, grandfather—whomever the youth can rely on and trust.
The youth I work with often lack accurate knowledge about topics like puberty, development, gender identity, and dealing with peer pressure. They mostly want to know, “Am I normal?” The MAD curriculum encourages facilitators to respond to questions honestly and accurately. The activities and learning in MAD acknowledge and affirm the questions youth have.
As a professional and a scientist, I wouldn’t be comfortable with any other approach. For most of the youth we work with, sexual behavior will be a part of their lives at some point. Our goal is to provide these youth the information and skills they need to make the best decisions for themselves when the time comes. That’s why we partner with PREP. If Making a Difference! isn’t a good match for a group of youth, we’ll happily suggest one of the resources available through PREP. PREP curricula are offered to youth ages 14–19 and can involve anything from a one-time presentation up to a 16-session curriculum. The PREP curricula we offer include Making Proud Choices (MPC), Sexual Health Adolescent Risk Prevention (SHARP), and Reducing the Risk (RTR).
We pair our interventions with a program that focuses on parent-adolescent communication, Families Talking Together (FTT). We want to educate trusted adults as well, get their buy-in to the program and information being provided, and let them know that they play the biggest role in helping their children build confidence and self-determination. In FTT, participants gain skills to talk to their youth, strengthen their relationships, and discuss sexual decision making. Having a caring adult who demonstrates interest, knows how to listen and keep a conversation going is vital to youth success.
Many of the youth we serve are at high risk for partner, family or community violence. Many are in the foster care or juvenile justice system. We see a wide range of health and mental health issues.
We are here to protect and support youth. We are LGBTQIA2+ inclusive. We are trauma sensitive. We are culturally inclusive and apply principles of cultural humility and awareness to our work. I work with an amazing group of colleagues engaged in continuous learning on these issues so that we do not bring shame or stigma to the education we provide. We want to deliver the most affirming sexuality education possible.
I feel incredibly lucky to be doing this work. I am proud of LSS for being a leader in this area and honored to work with my colleagues. I am moved every day by the strength, determination and energy of the young people I teach. I’m the biggest fan of our programs, and I know that REACH provides much-needed choices for the varied and resourceful adolescents in our state.
The dedicated professionals working with SRAE and PREP are working to give youth accurate and appropriate information and skills. They respect the individual’s right to self-determination and independence and work every day to build youth up. Education that is inclusive, affirming, and trauma informed—that is what we do!
Danae Verba, BS, SWA, is the REACH Coordinator for SRAE, a program of Lutheran Social Services Independent Living Services in South Dakota. LSS REACH is funded through the South Dakota Department of Health. She can be reached at Danae.Verba@LssSD.org.