Diocese Teaches Abstinence
BY Angelique Ruhi-Lopez
October 17-23, 2004 Issue | Posted 10/17/04 at 1:00 PM
ORLANDO, Fla. — Students in Orlando who are saying No to sex before marriage soon will have an opportunity to reach for the STARS.
Thanks to a $2.4-million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Community-Based Abstinence Education Project, the Orlando Diocese's ThinkSmart program soon will launch after-school clubs called “Students Today Aren't Ready for Sex” — STARS, for short.
“What was impressive about ThinkSmart as a program is that it has both an in-school and after-school element,” said Wade Horn, Health and Human Services assistant secretary, who on Sept. 15 presented the Diocese of Orlando with an $800,000 check — the first of three installments over three years.
“I do think it's important that young people get the message in a variety of consistent ways that abstinence is the surest way to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. The more they hear this message, the more they incorporate it into their attitudes and behavior,” Horn said.
Health and Human Services is awarding $70 million this fiscal year to 50 programs designed to support adolescents’ decision to delay sexual activity. The agency's “Special Projects of Regional and National Significance” enables community and faith-based organizations to apply to the federal government for funding.
Though there seems to be a trend toward greater government promotion of such programs via faith-based initiatives, grant recipients may not use the money to proselytize.
Criteria to receive funding included the capacity of an organization to provide abstinence education, the degree to which young people understand abstinence until marriage, the presence of a reasonable approach for evaluating program impact and the ability to interact with a large number of youths.
STARS is designed to reach a minimum of 2,500 youths in its first year, Horn said. “If they're able to achieve their goal — that 70% of those 2,500 commit to being abstinent — just think of the human suffering and even human lives that are going to be saved because of this.”
Not everyone is in favor of abstinence-only education, however.
“No matter what side you're on, you can agree that abstinence is the only way to remain 100% safe from sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. But the disconnect occurs when you stop there,” said Bill Barker, press secretary of Advocates for Youth, a national, nonprofit organization that, according to its website, “creates programs and supports policies that help young people make safe, responsible decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.”
“State-based and CDC (Centers for Disease Control ) research shows that abstinence-only programs aren't working. There are short-term effects on attitudes toward remaining abstinent, but those attitudes don't tend to last beyond early teen years. We should give young people comprehensive sexual education that includes contraceptives and other information to protect themselves in the long run when they do decide to become sexually active.”
But Pam Mullarkey, president of the Florida Abstinence Education Association, said programs like ThinkSmart are making a difference.
For 11 years, Mullarkey has been director of Project S.O.S., an abstinence education program near Jacksonville, Fla., that has reduced teen birth rates in six counties in northeastern Florida by 43% over six years. “It's working. We've got a lot of people trying to get rid of abstinence funding because it's hurting their budgets. When teen-agers stop becoming sexually active, then some organizations that cater to pregnant teens are in financial trouble.”
Diane Brown and Deborah Stafford-Shearer created ThinkSmart after learning of the staggering number of sexually transmitted diseases among younger children. Brown, who used to work at Jewish Family Services, and Stafford-Shearer, director of the Respect Life office in the Diocese of Orlando, met six years ago while working on an interfaith symposium for the aging and decided they wanted to work together on a different project to promote life. They applied for funding and received a Title V grant from the state of Florida to create an abstinence education program in the diocese for children ages 9 to 14.
Brown and Stafford-Shearer teamed up with the Orange County Health Department, Orange County public schools and Boys & Girls Clubs of America to target children in high-risk areas.
“During the first few years, we stood back from diocesan schools because we didn't want it to be known as just a Catholic program. The values taught in this program are values that belong in any religion,” said Brown, who is Jewish. “There are enormously strong forces out there that say abstinence is the best way —but — since you're going to be doing it, anyway, here's a condom. I absolutely don't believe in that. I have more faith in teens than that. They're capable of making decisions; they just have to see the possibilities for their future.”
The program emphasizes character building and critical-thinking skills to identify and employ age-appropriate refusal skills for high-risk behaviors including violence, tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Local schools invite ThinkSmart instructors for five consecutive days to do one-hour presentations on abstinence at each grade level. The program also provides after-school and summer programs for Boys & Girls Clubs, and includes a component called “Can We Talk?”, a program designed to reinforce the role of parents as the primary educators for their children.
Schools had to be sold on the concept of ThinkSmart programming at first, Brown said, but, by the time school started in 2003, all 10 instructors were booked through December. Last year, 73% of the students who participated in ThinkSmart were willing to sign a card pledging to be abstinent until marriage.
Stafford-Shearer said although they have recently made greater attempts to promote the program in diocesan schools, only about two or three of the 15 schools that participate are Catholic.
“I guess they think that because they have a curriculum that does integrate human sexuality in religion classes, that that's all they need to do, but Catholic schools don't have a parent component, and it is doing an injustice to the kids to not have that dialogue,” Stafford-Shearer said. She added that she does not believe Catholic teaching needs to be compromised in a public-school setting; only the wording changes.
“We don't talk about morality explicitly, but we do consider ThinkSmart a Catholic program,” she said. “Is it created by or infused with doctrine or dogma? It's not. Because it's a government-funded grant, we can't do that. However, it's Catholic in the sense that the content is consistent with Catholic social teaching and the concepts of promoting the sacredness and respect for all human life, whether unborn or of the individual person, and with themes such as self-discipline, respect for yourself and others, and self-worth. We say the same things; we just don't talk about God or religion.”
Leading by Example
Alexandra Veintidos feels it's so important to get the word out that she's become a ThinkSmart instructor. “A lot of students don't even know what abstinence means,” said the 19-year-old student at Valencia Community College. “But I explain to them that I personally have chosen to remain abstinent until I'm married. I want to be healthy, live a long life and make the right choices. One small choice can have so many consequences.”
The recent grant will enable ThinkSmart to start abstinence clubs at each school the instructors visit. It also has made possible new collaborations with community organizations, such as the Center for Drug-Free Living.
“We're trying to promote good ideas that can bring about good consequences,” said Coadjutor Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Diocese of Orlando. “TV sometimes presents casual sex as being without consequence, but young people need to see that bad ideas lead to bad consequences. It's also a means of helping parents fulfill their obligations to raise their children.”
Bishop Wenski said he is proud the diocese was awarded the grant to further its abstinence program.
“The government is respectful and allows us to present this program without compromising our own views,” he said. “It goes to show that government and Church, while separate, can be partners and not rivals.”
Angelique Ruhí-López writes from Miami, Florida.
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