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While growing up in underserved Los Angeles neighborhoods, Angelina Cazares and Aresha Martinez experienced the challenges faced by vulnerable community members firsthand. Now, as Schweitzer Fellows, Cazares (a USC School of Social Work student) and Martinez (a UCLA School of Public Health student) are working to empower female juvenile detainees from those same communities through Girl Talk, a comprehensive sexual health and personal empowerment program.

“We both came from similar communities as many of these young women and could have easily taken a wrong step and found ourselves in their positions,” Martinez says. “However, we recognize the profound potential, resourcefulness, and opportunities these young women still possess—and so we hope to use Girl Talk to help these young women build a bright future for themselves.”

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Martinez: Angie and I envisioned a project that would not only address a pressing public health issue, but also be personally relevant to us both. We were specifically interested in working with young women of color because we both recognized the need to give back to our communities. Since we come from social justice backgrounds, we also knew that we wanted to work with a community that was often under-resourced and underserved. Through coursework and research, we identified our particular health issue and population: sexual health and empowerment among juvenile female detainees.

Cazares: The situation of youth in group homes and my inability to help them due to a lack of expertise in the health care field have inspired me to pursue this Fellowship project and a career in social work, helping adolescents cope and deal with similar situations in their lives. Social workers make an effort to establish a personal connection with their clientele, and through this relationship, have the capacity to empower and educate disenfranchised populations. I believe my experience growing up in an underserved community provides me with better insight to understand the needs of similar communities.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Cazares: With my role as a mentor to young women living in a group home, I strive to emphasize the importance of being alert and educated in regards to the risks of STIs and STDs. I work to improve their knowledge of STIs (including risk factors, consequences, and prevention), provide them with condom utilization knowledge, teach and improve their negotiation skills, and ultimately empower them to participate in healthy sexual behaviors.

I also work to promote confidence and a more positive self-image. I believe that if these young women have a positive image of themselves (emotionally and physically) they will be motivated to do well in school, work, engage in extracurricular activities, socialize safely with peers, and live a very rewarding life.

Martinez: Juvenile detainees—particularly female juvenile detainees—are often an overlooked segment of the detainee population. The system fails these youth by not providing services and support that are culturally relevant, gender-specific, and youth-oriented. On a micro-scale, we ultimately hope to create a program that engages and empowers the young women we work with to make choices that will improve their lives.

On a larger scale, we hope to use our project to demonstrate the need to develop more resources for juvenile detainees that address the myriad of obstacles they face including risky health behaviors, family dynamics, academic barriers, etc.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Martinez: This is a difficult question to answer because I’ve learned in my public health program that each county, community, and individual faces their own unique situation and set of circumstances that impact their health status. You don’t even have to go far to witness the breadth of issues. For example, a senior citizen in South Central LA may face poverty, food-scarcity, and nutritional deficiencies due to their limited income. The 10-year old boy who lives next door may suffer from diabetes and obesity because his mother doesn’t have enough time and resources to provide a healthy meal, so she resorts to fast food.

Personally, I am most concerned about the health issues facing low-income and minority youth. Not only do we see alarming rates of homicide, risky health behaviors, and mental health issues among this population, these youth also face significant educational disparities. I feel that both the fields of public health and education need to engage in collaborative practices that will engage these youth to develop the strategies to improve their health behaviors as well as educational status.

Cazares: Within the female adolescent detainee population, rates of STIs are much higher in comparison to the broader Los Angeles adolescent population. Moreover, within the juvenile justice and child welfare system, limited resources are available to provide STD prevention programming to female youth. Female adolescents who are positive undergo a short treatment and are provided medications and brief counseling sessions. However, the broader juvenile population is in need of awareness and prevention programs that will allow them to reenter society with a clear understanding of the implications and the risks STDs will have on their lives.

In a broader sense, we must improve the lives of underserved children and families by strengthening the family support system and helping them cope with and overcome issues such as domestic violence and child abuse.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

Cazares:   The most surprising element of my Schweitzer experience thus far has been finding people from various disciplines, backgrounds, and life experiences who share the same passion and dedication for helping people in need. We are graduate and professional students who are dedicated, enthusiastic, and committed to making our service projects a success. There is also a great sense of comradeship among our cohort of Fellows to support, help, listen, and ultimately be there for one another. After all, we are all full-time students within our programs who are also involved in other extracurricular activities, so we all have pretty hectic schedules. When times get hard or something related to our service project is not working out the way we planned, we seek each other out for help, advice, and support.

Martinez: Engaging and interacting with the other Schweitzer Fellows has been one of the most rewarding experiences so far. I was excited to learn about the diverse experiences of our cohort as well as their passion for their particular project. While we execute our projects independently, our meetings and interactions provide a space for us to reflect and build. That opportunity has been invaluable because we are building a mutual support system and network that will be maintained when we become Fellows for Life.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

Cazares: The Schweitzer Fellowship will help me improve the lives of female youth trapped in the system by helping them strengthen their self-image as young females, helping them cope with being part of the child welfare system, providing safe sex awareness, and ultimately promoting empowerment and social justice. Being a Fellow for Life means becoming a part of the Schweitzer family. Schweitzer’s legacy of advocating for disadvantaged communities, lending a helping hand to those in need, and spreading awareness of public health issues will continue to live on, one Fellow at a time.

Martinez: As a graduate student, I am provided with a variety of opportunities to engage in research, community work, and employment. However, I was eager to pursue the Schweitzer Fellowship because I am passionate about using my public health career to address the health disparities faced by my community. I appreciate all the obstacles I have overcome and the privilege that I know I have. As a Fellow and a future Fellow for Life, I hope to use this opportunity to begin learning how I can help transform and advance my community.

Angelina Cazares and Aresha Martinez are Schweitzer Fellows in Los Angeles, CA. Click here to read more about the Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Cazares and Martinez it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Cazares and Martinez’ s efforts to empower female juvenile detainees, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.