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“At the age of sixteen, I found myself pregnant. From the moment I became a teen mother, I knew the odds were stacked against me. I knew I would have to work twice as hard to accomplish my dreams. So that’s exactly what I did.”

Hearing the story of Diane Macias (pictured below), Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida (PPSENFL) community educator, at the 2019 Tradition of Choice luncheon reminded me why we do this work. While raising her daughter, Diane studied for her Bachelor’s degree and then, after working as an advocate with Planned Parenthood, went back to school for her Master’s degree in social work.

Diane found Planned Parenthood when she decided she wanted to become an advocate. She Googled “teen mom advocacy” and Planned Parenthood was the first website to pop up. Diane worked as a community health educator with Planned Parenthood in Broward County, Florida, where she runs a peer education program for high school students in the county. Diane helped create the Leaders Igniting a Generation of Healthy Teens (LIGHTS) program, which launched in October 2018, to build a pipeline of leadership for youth in the area.

During my visit to PPSENFL with President and CEO Lillian Tamayo, I was thoroughly impressed with the entire PPSENFL team — standing strong in the face of a hostile and anti-reproductive health state government.

With the third-largest number of uninsured residents of any state in the nation, Floridians face laws that restrict access to abortion. And because the state did not expand Medicaid, they face a lack of health access as well. In the face of these obstacles, the state serves as bellwether for the country; it is young and diverse, with passionate activists working to fight for the recognition of health care as a human right and reproductive health as standard medical care.

In Miami, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Kurt Christopher, who explained that there are no abortion providers in the Florida Keys. Residents have to drive to Miami — up to five hours away — to receive care. Independent abortion providers have been forced to close as a result of onerous state laws around transfer agreements, admitting privileges, and even regulating the size of rooms in abortion facilities. The Friday before my visit, the Planned Parenthood health center in Tallahassee started offering medication abortion — the team saw 11 patients on the first day.

Many of the Miami Planned Parenthood patients also participate in the “pay later program.” A program that allows patients to leave with 13 birth control packs and pay over time for each of them. This system prevents women from facing large up-front costs while saving them from having to come in for multiple appointments to pick up their birth control. When patients look in their pocket to see what they can afford, they have to make difficult decisions about their health. The health center in Miami, along with other PPSENFL health centers, is working to cut costs and provide quality, affordable services. As part of the affiliate’s ongoing initiative, Lillian hopes the health centers will be able to provide free services to teens and lower prices in some of the health centers. For example, at the Jacksonville health center, HIV and STI testing is free for individuals up to age 25.

I also spoke with Tanisha Osorto, director of education and community engagement, about PPSENFL’s work during the outbreak of Zika, in 2016. During our conversation, she discussed how Planned Parenthood distributed Zika kits, canvassers knocked on doors with educational information in English and Spanish, and spoke with mothers about how to receive care and prevent disease.  As part of this program, Planned Parenthood volunteers participated in health fairs and community events where they were engaged with community members in linguistically and geographically isolated populations.

The PPSENFL team is doing very important work right now, working on initiatives to expand Medicaid in Florida. Two staff members working on this project are Mayte Canino, a program manager, and Paige Armstrong, a regional organizer. Among other things, Mayte conducts legislative training with patient advocates, and travels to Tallahassee for a whole week of lobby days. “What energizes people?” Mayte said. “Knowing that they are empowered to speak. This gives patient advocates the fire to know that they can make a difference.”

I also met a young leader with a bright future ahead of her. Lai Eng is the past president of the Florida International University Generation Action. Lai’s parents immigrated from China 22 years ago. She grew up with no health insurance in household with low income. When she was 19, she visited the gynecologist on campus to get birth control, but the technician was dismissive and rude. Lai started going to Planned Parenthood, where she already frequented as a volunteer, for her care. It wasn’t very long before her friends started referring to Lai as the “Planned Parenthood girl.” Lai would offer contraceptives and guidance to her peers, who trusted and confided in her. She continues to provide support and guidance to her classmates with their reproductive needs. In the future, Lai hopes to go to law school and work in reproductive health care policy.

Lillian and I had the opportunity to speak with the Florida Phoenix and WPTV to talk about what we know both on a local and a national level — that health care and reproductive health care is still under attack, but that Planned Parenthood will be here to provide care — no matter what. "How do we push back? How do we let the governor know that women's health care is health care?" said Lillian said to WPTV. "We have to be hopeful. There's a generation of women that rely on us."

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