Dr. Aletha Maybank (second from left) and First Lady Chirlane McCray (center) participate in an ice-breaker session with the teens of NYCTC

New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray spent her lunchtime on Wednesday meeting with a group of NYC teens from Central Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx to discuss… teen sexual and reproductive health.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”I wanted to teach my friends about sexual health and be a part of an issue where I can make a real impact.”[/perfectpullquote]

The teens were a part of two groups– Bridge Street Development Corporation and New York City Teens Connection (NYCTC), an adolescent sexual health program aimed at reducing unintended pregnancy, part of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

First Lady McCray conducted a site visit Wednesday morning of MIC Women’s Health Services in Crown Heights, known for its strong, teen-friendly outreach component. Then, McCray  spent the rest of the afternoon at Weeksville Heritage Center, where she shared lunch with around 30 NYCTC youth leaders, asking questions and speaking intimately about their work, successes and challenges in talking to their peers about sexual health.

“You are doing work that very few young people are doing,” said McCray to the teens. “Our society talks a lot about sex. But it’s usually misinformation, with shame or stigma. So I’m really excited to be here. Thank you for being leaders and for your bravery, because you have so much to teach young people.”

NYCTC is an expansion of Bronx Teens Connection– founded in 2012– a successful, community-based model that engages high school teens, parents, community organizations, schools, clinics and other citywide agencies in a comprehensive effort to help youth in New York City understand that sexual health is a public health issue.

NYCTC works in communities with teen birth rates higher than the national average– 26.6 per 1,000 females, age 15-19. The program is part of a larger DOHMH effort to advance just and fair outcomes, particularly those in marginalized communities.

“I’m hoping that they’re able to communicate how important it is for all adolescents to have access to things like teen-friendly clinics so that young people can make the best decisions for their lives,” said NYCTC Bronx Community Engagement Coordinator Clariza Yvette-Perez.

Many of the teens said they’d heard about the program through word of mouth from other friends. But what attracted them most to join and then stay with the program was discovering a community of like-minded young activists who were making a difference around an issue that hit home.

“I feel like we’re not taught enough about sex health at home or in school,” said Kiara Acevedo, 17. “So a lot of my friends got pregnant and just didn’t know much. That’s why I joined. I wanted to teach my friends about sexual health and be a part of an issue where I can make a real impact.”

NYCTC teens that become a part of the program learn about the multiple inequities and health outcomes that result from unintended teen pregnancy and they act as ambassadors, campaigning and sharing information with other teens around such topics as on birth control and Plan B; how to talk to your partner about sex; and where to get HIV and STI testing resources. The teens also take part in meetings with the City in the crafting of the messages and campaigns pushed forth by the City.

(l to r): NYCTC Teens Victor Nazimo, 17; Shareef Traore, 17; and Willmely Scroggins, 18

“A lot of my friends have a lot of misconceptions about sexual health,” said Rasheed Collins, 17. “With this program, I’m able to tell them what’s myth and what’s the truth.”

The young activists of NYCTC were at once shy and grateful in being able to have such an intimate conversation with the First Lady where their voices were heard and their work was validated. But it was McCray who seemed most grateful: “Thank you for being leaders on sexual health and relationships,” she told the teens. ” Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re making history today, with every act of courage that you do.”

For more information or to get involved with New York City Teens Connection, go here.

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