A dynamic Verna Eggleston urged a roomful of teen health providers to use every tool at their disposal when confronting adolescents' issues. Eggleston, the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute ( HMI ) , the largest gay and lesbian youth organization in the country, was the keynote speaker at the June 30 3rd Annual Health Issues for Youth at Risk Conference held at De Paul's Egan Urban Center.
More than a hundred service providers were present for a day scheduled with workshops on topics including "At Risk Youth/At Risk Staff," "Health Risks of Adolescent Sex," and "Health Issues Facing Runaway Youth". The Night Ministry, Chicago Health Outreach, Teen Living Program, and the Youth Network Council hosted the conference.
"We continue to use this old-fashioned language: 'Are you having sexual intercourse?'" said Eggleston. "That's meaningless to some. That's not the practice of the young people I serve."
Eggleston said others take the opposite approach of using youth language. "If I talk your language, then we be like jiggity," offered Eggleston. In order to know what youths are saying Eggleston had her staff create a glossary of contemporary teen lingo. "I didn't need to communicate with them in that way but I did need to know what they were saying to me when they said they were getting jiggity."
Eggleston emphasized the importance of putting one's biases based on class, economic status, race, and gender aside when working with youth. "I'll put my beliefs aside for one moment so I can hear what they have to say," explained Eggleston. The HMI is located in New York City and provides services to more than 7,000 youth ages 2-21 from the New York metropolitan area each year. It's estimated that there are 30,000 homeless youth on New York City's streets. HMI is particularly known for its Harvey Milk School, the first and largest accredited public school in the world devoted to the education needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning youth. Advocates for Youth studies indicate that up to 40 percent of homeless youth maybe LBGT.
Eggleston, who has 25 years in youth social services, participated in the Hate Crimes conference at the White House. She has also worked as a senior administrator for government and private agencies.
Eggleston related brief anecdotes the illustrated the complexities of teen sexuality: young lesbians who get pregnant because it will get them services; banjee boys who are equally sexually active with males and females; and straight females who have anal intercourse to preserve their virginity. Eggleston and the HMI staff encounter other hurdles besides teen sexuality. Daily survival issues impact these urban youths. "How long can you survive on a twinky diet?" she asks rhetorically.
Eggleston eloquently brought to light the fact that when it comes to HIV, the risk factors that affect youth are no different than those for adults. Because youth misinterpret the utility of lists, some youth will wrongly interpret that they face no risk from HIV. "I've been with my boyfriend since we were 12 and I know he's not into that MSM stuff," said Eggleston mimicking a New York teen girl. "Anyone who has had barrier-free sexual intercourse between 1960 and today is at risk for HIV," said Eggleston.
Eggleston spoke about parallel issues with confronting HIV in seniors, particularly when they are one's relatives. Like adolescents, this age group is a vulnerable population. Adolescents and seniors frequently can only access services through someone else.
"I must stay connected. I must make sure that all those folk who don't have access get access. Because if it came for me last night it's coming for you in the morning," said Eggleston.
Urging everyone to get tested for HIV, Eggleston pleaded, "I don't care how rich you are. I don't care how poor you are. I don't care how Black you are. I don't care how white you are. I don't care how gay you are and I don't care how straight you are. I don't care how you have sex."
Eggleston concluded by saying when social-service providers no long feel good about the work they are doing—move on. Eggleston emphasized, however, that the work the providers are doing is vital.