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Kattie Ulloa endured a storm within herself until she got to high school and found empathy from the very peers she feared would reject her.
“I had trouble figuring out who I was,” said Ulloa, a Hialeah High junior who abused marijuana, Adderall and alcohol, cut herself, and contemplated suicide. “When I decided I was transgender, I figured I’d be insulted, isolated, ashamed. Instead, I got support from my fellow students who understood a really complex issue, who understood me.”
Ulloa is one of countless Health Information Project success stories that were celebrated Wednesday by the 1,400 peer educators who teach health awareness to 32,000 ninth-graders in 54 schools in Miami-Dade County. Through the innovative program, Ulloa was able to find the therapy she needed. She, in turn, became a HIP educator, and her ultimate goal is to be a psychiatrist.
HIP Day at the University of Miami featured testimonials and breakout discussion groups on such critical teen health issues as obesity, depression, anxiety, pregnancy, eating disorders, suicide, bullying and sexual assault.
HIP was founded in 2009 by Palmetto High graduate Risa Berrin and her sister Val, a Gulliver Prep grad. Risa had finished law school but she decided to apply her passion for helping troubled kids into life-changing action. The school system eliminated health education from the curriculum; HIP filled the void.
“HIP is incredibly popular in our schools because it offers something more relevant than the usual lectures, cheesy videos, outdated textbooks and scare tactics,” Risa said. “What are kids really dealing with? What are the taboo topics? We know peer pressure works. Kids will confide in their fellow students. We want to get them accurate information. We want to empower them.”
Emelie Reyes, a G. Holmes Braddock High senior, was suffering from anxiety and depression until she got help through HIP.
“Mental illness has a stigma in our society, especially in Hispanic households, where it’s seen as a passing phase,” she said. “At school, I had someone to talk to and found the courage to talk to my family.”
Melissa Montero, a Braddock junior, did not understand that her mother was schizophrenic until she heard the disorder described at a HIP session. Now she’s able to help take care of her mother and “I’m no longer ashamed about her,” she said.
A young woman who did not want her name publicized took the stage and gave a testimonial about how she was raped at age 6 by an uncle, then moved from Miami Gardens to Homestead, where she was raped by cousins and witnessed her mother’s rape. Her father is in prison. She suffered from eating disorders and had suicidal thoughts until HIP “saved my life,” she told Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
Central High HIP educators Zion Alexander, Cassandre Dieudonne and Jessica Arnold said pregnancy is a major problem at their school, as well as depression, bullying and drug abuse. They’ve had students cry on their shoulders.
“For a lot of kids, it’s lack of love,” Alexander said.
Said Arnold: “They feel rejection by their mother, the absence of their father. They think nobody cares about them, that their voice will never be heard.”
HIP was implemented this year at Ransom Everglades, a small, expensive private school where it has been a revelation, said faculty sponsor Albert Adatto and educator Libby Meland, a junior.
“Even if you’re at a school with lots of resources, the problems are the same,” Meland said. “Academic stress, body image, drugs, pressure from parents. We teach students how to deal with issues in the smartest and safest way without judging them.”
At Northwestern High, students sometimes must cope with the death of friends in a violent neighborhood.
“For every fallen Bull, we have a moment of silence,” Jakirah Davis said. “HIP shows kids that they are not alone, they can open up to us.”
Braddock faculty sponsor Gail LeNoble said students have come forward to discuss mental health issues and marijuana abuse.
“Every student has a story,” she said. “HIP provides an atmosphere of trust. We saved a couple kids from committing suicide.”
Maria Bergouignan, faculty sponsor at South Miami High, said her HIP educators have helped homeless students find a place to sleep.
“It’s like having a big brother or sister point you in the right direction,” she said. “It’s invaluable.”