Peers get personal

Those of us still able to remember our youth will know that the
last person young people want to talk to about sex and
relationships is an adult or authority figure.

The Hearsex project, which last year won the Community
re award in the children and families category, has found an
effective way to enable young people to discuss personal
relationships and sexual health by harnessing the enthusiasm and
experiences of their peers.

The project is based in Birmingham Council’s aftercare service, and
is a joint initiative run by the HIV team and social services.
Overseen by project co-ordinator Gayner Miller, Hearsex is a small
group of peer educators who have lived in either residential or
foster care and have taken part in peer education training on
personal relationships and sexual health.

It started in 2001 after the department found out about the
introduction of a BTEC award in peer education and felt this
offered an ideal opportunity to engage its target group of young
people who were not in training or employment. The training
includes planning activities, support and impact evaluation, sexual
health services, confidentiality and working with others.

“The whole course is underpinning that peer education is about
giving information in an informal and relaxed way,” Miller

After training, the peer educators go into a residential unit where
they run eight one-hour sessions to help young people talk about
sexual health and issues that might concern them. Miller oversees
these sessions, which are run by two peer educators, although she
emphasises her back-seat role. “The beauty of Hearsex is that it’s
young-people led,” she says.

The issues raised depend on the experiences of the young people in
the unit. Miller says: “We draw up ground rules at the start and
make it clear that, unless we feel they are at risk, what is said
will not leave the room. It’s really up to the group to define
what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

An evaluation at the end of each session gives the young people a
chance to offer their views and allows the peer educators to plan
future sessions. Miller says the feedback is usually positive and
allows young people to say what they want in a language that other
young people can understand.

Peer educators have to be adaptable and prepared. “Some young
people know everything while some are very uninformed,” Miller
says. “When you are just living with other young people, you can
hear a lot of myths and prejudices. When we did World Aids Day we
found there were still young people who thought Aids was just a gay
issue, just as there are still young people who have no idea what a
sexually transmitted disease is.”

Miller stresses, however, that whatever their level of knowledge
they are never made to feel silly. “It is okay to be misinformed as
long as you get the information you need at the end of the session
– that’s what the project is all about.”

Winning the Community Care award was “fantastic and completely
unexpected”, says Miller. “We were able to bring two of the young
peer educators with us [to the ceremony], and those that couldn’t
come were also delighted. It’s nice to be recognised.”

Hearsex has had a positive effect on the young people involved. The
project is working with its third group of peer educators, many of
whose predecessors have achieved the BTEC award.

Peer educator Chantelle Gordon says: “I feel this BTEC is a
stepping stone to bigger and better things – I feel positive about
the future.”

Miller plans to spend the award money on a television, video
recorder and a video camera, all of which will improve the young
people’s training facilities. Further into the future are plans to
extend its service to peer education training on drugs, and Miller
is waiting to hear whether a funding bid to the drug action team
has been successful before moving ahead with this.

Miller says: “This work isn’t easy, and the best part of my job is
seeing how the young people develop and grow as a result of being
involved in the project.”

– The children and families category was sponsored by
Five Rivers

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