JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: Meet Russell Proctor, better-known as R.P., an engaging 26-year-old self-described “ginger head” who could have been a stand-up comic.
RUSSELL PROCTOR: Dang it, dang it, no. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Reset.
VALENTE: But the topics he’ll discuss with these ninth graders over the next five days are serious: what it means to be a man, the value of monogamous relationships, the danger of sexually transmitted diseases, how to avoid bad dating relationships, how to grow in self-esteem and treat others with respect.
R.P. is part of a private organization called Healthy Visions that tries to give teenagers the tools to make healthier life choices during the critical high school years. The hallmark of Healthy Visions is presenting information in an amusing, entertaining way. Although Healthy Visions reflects the Christian values of its founder and staff, it has been welcomed into 26 schools in Ohio and northern Kentucky, most of them public.
Healthy Visions is based on the premise that teens can learn the decision-making skills that can help them connect their actions with consequences. Healthy Visions’ charismatic young counselors, or presenters, as they like to be called, talk frankly about sex, STDs, date rape, bullying, and teen suicide—topics many public school teachers feel ill-equipped to address.
Carole Adlard began Healthy Visions as a counseling program for pregnant teens but quickly realized students needed more.
CAROLE ADLARD (Founder, Healthy Visions): One of the facts that broke my heart was seeing so many students who felt hopeless. They were in bad home situations, they were being bullied in schools, they had been sexually abused. You could see the lack of light in their eyes, and we wanted to offer them hope.
RUSSELL PROCTOR: Day 1 I talk about healthy self-image. With girls it’s much more about body image: Hey, listen, you don’t have to be a size 2. You’re a beautiful girl no matter what size you are, no matter how much make-up you wear. And then I try to teach the guys what it means to be a man, because our society kind of teaches, okay, men need to hook up with girls, men need to drink. Day 2 we talk about Facebook, technology, cell phones, how to be smart with that stuff. Day 3 we talk about sex, the physical side, how people are connected, how STDs spread, kind of the nuts and bolts of sex. Day 4 we talk about healthy dating relationships. And then Day 5 we talk about the emotional side of sex, like how it’s going to affect your heart, your mind, your connecting to people. And then I wrap up with what are you going to do now? I’m very real to the point of being pretty blunt about what I say, but kids respect that.
VALENTE: Proctor is especially frank also about his own struggles.
PROCTOR: I got made fun of a lot, very depressed, suicidal thoughts a lot. I can feel that tense high school feeling all over again, and I can just relate to these kids on that level because I’ve lived through it and have never forgotten that.
VALENTE: Proctor says he drank heavily in high school and was into the sexual hook-up culture. Those experiences left him numb. He tells students he is in a serious relationship now and that he and his girlfriend have decided to wait until they are married to have sex.
PROCTOR: I can tell stories about hey, I’ve been waiting for this long, this many years for sex. And they go, oh, okay. And I treat my girlfriend like this. Oh, okay, I believe him. Oh, okay, and when kids see you buying into it, they buy into it too.
HEATHER CAMPBELL (Teacher): The guys from Healthy Visions have been a blessing to us. They really reach kids in a way that I as a teacher I’m not able to. They’re younger and the kids relate to them better. And long after they’re gone they continue to come up in the kids’ conversations and writings.
VALENTE: No definitive study has been done to measure Healthy Visions’ impact. But the organization recently surveyed 164 students who had completed its classes. Ninety-five percent said it changed the way they look at relationships and sex. Seventy-seven percent said it improved their self-esteem, and 64 percent said it made them more aware of the dangers of alcohol and drugs.
KRISTEN LOWE (Student): It changed the way I look at myself. I respect myself more and now, like I don’t really care what other people say. Like I feel that I’m beautiful in my own way and I let it really, like, it opened a new door for me and I feel different about myself.
KAREEM AL-SHAKIR (Student): Seeing Healthy Visions, it changed how you should act in relationships and how you shouldn’t act and what’s healthy and what’s not healthy. Like to try and be controlling and stuff, that’s unhealthy.
EMILY KOZEL (Student): Some teachers, they just have that voice that you don’t want to listen to sometimes. And I mean, when R.P. comes into class and he, you know, puts his leg up on the table and starts, you know, talking about how he’s like a ginger and all of his family stuff in the first five minutes of class, I think it just hooks everybody in to want to listen to him.
VALENTE: Emily Kozel is a sophomore in suburban Milford, Ohio. She wrote this letter to R.P. after he helped her cope with bullies at her school and a suicide attempt by her best friend.
KOZEL (reading): Before he came along, I had very low self-esteem. I always thought that I was considered a piece of junk. He has taught me to understand that I am beautiful just the way I am, no matter what I look like. He helped me to overcome being bullied and helped me to realize that I need to help those around me. I have not thought about suicide in over a year-and-a-half.
VALENTE: After taking Healthy Visions classes, Allison Herndon, a tenth grader from Kings Mills, Ohio, started a Facebook support page for girls called “Beauty Within Me.” The page quickly gained 190 friends.
ALLISON HERNDON: A lot of people have problems at home, so they write about that. Insecurity is a big thing on there. People write about how they don’t feel pretty, and they have a hard time adjusting to it, and they think that other people don’t like them.
CHUCK LAFATA (Principal, Redding High School): First time I sat in on a Healthy Visions presentation in health class, I thought, holy cow! I don’t know how this is going to go over. Not one, not one complaint from teachers, parents, or students.
PROCTOR: Sex, sex, sex…
LYNN TEUSCHLER (Parent): For me as a parent, I’m bombarded. I constantly feel like I’m alone in messaging to the kids, you know, about chastity and waiting and all the dangers of the culture today. And I finally felt like I had back up.
VALENTE: Some people would say this kind of thing doesn’t really belong in the public schools. This is the role of the parent. This is the role of the family.
TEUSCHLER: Well, they have sex ed in the public schools already, and in my opinion they’re pushing sex down the throats of children whether or not the parents like it or not. Why can’t they get a counterbalance and have chastity, you know, promote abstinence?
VALENTE: How can you show that you’re not pushing any particular religion or religious belief?
ADLARD: What we’re teaching is the basic human premise that you’re created, that you’re valuable, that you’re lovable, and that you have a purpose. That’s what we teach. And those are intrinsic to our humanity.
PROCTOR: I’m taking the message of Jesus to people. I just can’t mention his name. So like when I talk about, hey, you’re forgiven for your past and I don’t hold any of it against you. For a lot of kids, that’s a new message, but that’s actually an old message. That’s a Jesus message.
VALENTE: Once classes are over, students can keep in touch with R.P. and other Healthy Visions staff through Facebook. Cases involving abuse or more serious psychological problems are referred to professional counselors.
(speaking to Russell Proctor): How do you find the inner strength to do this work week after week?
PROCTOR: Like sometimes on a Monday, it will be hard for me. I’ll think, man, another week, this is going to be intense. But then you watch as the week goes on, and this kid who starts out as a lump of clay, who thinks maybe I’m not that pretty, maybe I’m not that valuable, and then you watch as the week goes on, and they just blossom. Every time I see that that’s why I do this job.
VALENTE: Proctor and the Healthy Visions staff are at work on a curriculum guide that can be downloaded online. They hope to one day spread their message of healthy choices to high schools across the country.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Judy Valente in Cincinnati.