HIP teaches Miami high school students about health issues

As a medical reporter for her college newspaper, Risa Berrin was surprised how misinformed her peers were about health and body issues. That surprise turned to alarm when, as an adult, she volunteered with foster kids, incarcerated juveniles and students in Miami.

So when the Miami-Dade public schools decided to no longer require a semester of health for graduation in local high schools, she decided to start an educational program that “would address the lack of knowledge while also connecting students with resources available in the community.”

Now in its fifth year, the Health Information Project — HIP, for short — has worked with more than 27,000 high school students in the county teaching them about reproductive health, a mainstay of the health classes of yore, and also about relationships, nutrition, exercise, obesity, alcohol, tobacco and drugs. This school year alone, HIP has partnered with 26 Miami high schools and is teaching more than 15,000 ninth graders about health and relationship issues they would most likely never learn about in school.

Funded by private and public partners, HIP bills itself as a peer-to-peer club with 600 specially trained juniors and seniors who deliver information to ninth graders in a frank and nonjudgmental way. It’s these peer educators who are the key to the program’s success, Berrin said.

“It’s not just the information they’re giving, but who is giving it to them,” Berrin added. “These are students they see in the hall, students who have experienced what they’re experiencing, so they’re much more accessible than an adult. This is different than hearing the information from a teacher.”

The hour-long programs also use an interactive format that draws out students through games, role playing and video clips. “The idea is to make it okay to talk about these issues. We want to make it acceptable to bring it up with the people who can help,” Berrin said.

At a recent HIP class on relationships at Ronald Reagan-Doral High School, three peer educators clad in white and lime-colored HIP tee shirts (“Be smart, be healthy, be hip”) worked a room of ninth graders, talking about different interpersonal connections. Students discussed labels, such as transgender and bisexual, and learned about a variety of abusive situations.

“When you’re in a relationship, it shouldn’t change your life,” senior Daniela Murcia told them. “You can have separate identities. You can be yourself.”

Roberto Genao, another senior peer educator, chimed in to add that too much dependence is unhealthy. He detailed examples of controlling behavior. In the audience, a few girls nodded.

Natalie Azpeitia, the HIP club president at Reagan High, said the teaching module on relationships is the most popular one with students. “Not everyone does drugs. Not everyone has a weight problem, but everyone is in a relationship with someone,” she said. “It seems to really click, especially with the girls. They’ll say, ‘I see this happening to my friend. What can I do?’”

Reagan High Assistant Principal Tony Ullivarri, an early HIP backer, said the club does a “phenomenal job of giving our students factual information and a sense of what resources are out there for them. They wouldn’t get this anywhere else. It’s not mandated in our curriculum, but it still needs to be discussed.”

Peer educators devote four days a month — at Reagan High, it’s usually every other Wednesday and Thursday — to teach the program to underclassmen. They insist no one, especially an adult, could do it better.

“We give them a lot of information, facts, statistics, real examples,” Genao said, “but we’re not superior to them. They can relate to what we’re saying.”

For Fernando Osorio, one of the ninth graders in the audience, the section on labels raised his awareness about how derogatory words can hurt people. “I say things to my friends in a joking way, but now I realize what they really mean and how they can be taken.”

Tabatha Avilan, another ninth grader, said she has found the sections on mental health and nutrition particularly helpful. As a result, she is eating healthier and by recognizing the signs of depression has been able to help a friend. “The best thing is that I learned how to talk to my friends about certain topics,” she said. “I can tell them where to go for help.”

The HIP program emphasizes that help is a click away. On its website, the non-profit provides a list of resources for a variety of issues. Not every ninth grader will need information on HIP topics right away, said science teacher Maria Pardo, the club’s faculty sponsor. “But when something happens in their lives, they’ll know where to go. They’ll have information available to make better choices.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of peer educators trained by HIP.