By Carrie Spitler

In a society where pregnancy, obesity and drug use are everyday teenage realities, some teens are trying to turn an informed eye toward prevention. Santa Cruz and Monterey County youth make up the Watsonville Teen Advocacy group, an organization that runs monthly sex and health workshops for other high school students.

“It’s a program where we teach teens about sex and nutrition,” said 18-year-old Juan Ruiz, a three-year Teen Advocacy veteran. “It’s something I would rather do than just going home after school.”

The Teen Advocacy program is a product of the non-profit organization Strategic Health Communications, which also funds youth-run nutrition programs, radio stations and newspapers in the area. The goal of the program is to provide teens with productive after-school activities while helping them educate and interact with their peers.

Teen Advocacy Supervisor Maria Magana sees peer-to-peer informative workshops as the best way for teens to get facts about sex, health and drugs.

“Around 2000, some teens saw their friends getting pregnant, and that’s where this group began,” she said.

Teen Advocacy volunteers educate fellow youths in workshops about physical health, peer pressure, effectively saying ‘no,’ sexually transmitted infections and how to use condoms and other forms of birth control. The group, which has provided workshops as far away as Orange County, also provides free condoms to kids who may be too scared or intimidated to purchase contraceptives.

Teen Advocacy educator Diana Longorria said that teaching workshops has been a positive experience for her.

“It’s really fun because we get to travel places,” said Longoria, a 14-year-old high school student. “We go to high schools and middle schools and set up tables where we give out information and condoms.”

Though some argue that Teen Advocacy encourages underage sex, group members say that parental opposition is scarce.

Supervisor Magana said that some parents can be very standoffish when it comes to teaching their kids about sex, but most parents understand that they can’t simply assume their children aren’t having sex. While Teen Advocacy encourages parental participation, Magana also feels that there is no better way to educate teens than giving them someone their own age to talk to.

“Kids listen to kids their own age,” Magana said. “They speak a whole different language and the kids understand that their peers ‘get them.’”