From carrot festivals, health fairs, and farmers markets to churches, Imperial Valley’s promoters and educators get creative with their community outreach. Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest has one health center in Imperial County, the most rural county in the three-county region. The Imperial Valley Homan Center in El Centro is an essential resource for sexual and reproductive health care for residents, as well as those traveling from other states where abortion access is limited. As the LA Times called it, the Planned Parenthood health center in Imperial Valley is “A desert oasis for abortion patients”. Maybe less well known is that it’s also a desert oasis for sex education and reproductive health care outreach.
The Community Education and Outreach team in Imperial Valley provides sex education and spreads awareness about the range of services Planned Parenthood provides. Last year, Promotorx educated more than 1,800 people about Planned Parenthood services, had informational booths at 45 community events, and did 2,000 literature drops (leaving information on peoples’ doors about monthly health campaigns). They face some challenges in the region, however. Elizabeth Cortez, a promotora for Planned Parenthood, reflects back on community outreach in Imperial County saying, “At the beginning, it was hard. A lot of people didn’t like us and we weren't allowed to go to a lot of places. Now, it’s been more open and more like, okay, they want to know more and I think that’s due to the effort we’ve been doing.” These efforts include years of canvassing neighborhoods, tabling events, teaching sex ed, and establishing community partnerships. Elizabeth notes how the level of health care outreach, in general, in the region has grown: “When we started with the health fairs, they were small and they didn’t have the connections but you can see now with the health fairs, it’s a lot of agencies. Nothing compares with 4-5 years ago.”
Elizabeth has been a promotora for the past three years and volunteered for over six years before that. She recognizes that her level of familiarity within the community helps her be successful in her job, noting how years of relationship-building has paid off. Some of her day-to-day activities as a promotora include canvassing different areas in the region, handing out educational brochures, dental dams and condoms, and most importantly -- having meaningful conversations. Elizabeth is resourceful at finding people to chat with where she can, from swap meets, neighborhoods and apartment complexes, health fairs and agricultural fields, to community events like the Carrot Festival in Holtville.
Joann Flores, a community education and engagement specialist in Imperial Valley, describes the challenges and rewards of doing community outreach saying,
“As a Planned Parenthood educator, I feel privileged to be able to teach the youth in our community about Making Proud Choices and empowering them to make educated decisions when it comes to their sexual health. It can be a stigma within our culture to talk about sexuality and the consequences that can come from sometimes not knowing any better. It’s nice to be able to change somebody’s mind. Maybe they had misinformation, a stigma, or they’re not really aware of all the services available to them and that we offer at the health center. Being from this community, it feels good to be able to remove that stigma and change a person's perception. And you see it from people who didn’t even want to approach you and next thing you know, they’re walking away thanking you for doing the work that we do.”
Joann and Elizabeth both share about the difficulty in reaching young people due to the region's school boards. They have historically been less willing to let Planned Parenthood teach sex education at its schools. For this reason, Joann teaches groups of young people in apartment complexes and foster homes, and they both do extensive community outreach anywhere that they can establish a relationship. Elizabeth goes on to talk about what motivates her in this work, saying, “I like to educate people, let them know what we have, what we do. Especially because I think it’s my own experience because I was so naive before,”. She also speaks about some of the more negative experiences she’s had dealing with abortion stigma while on the job. Despite the really tough interactions she’s had though, she describes how that adversity has motivated her saying, “It was a transformation for me and made me stronger.”
When talking about the most rewarding experiences she’s had as a promotora, she nods to the changing attitudes and people surprising her. One example is the day she got invited to give out condoms and sexual health brochures at a church! She couldn’t believe it at the time but contributes this to the relationship-building they’ve done over the years, which results in being invited to new places. Overall though, Elizabeth underscores her drive doing this work saying, “Because I love what I do and I believe in this, I put all my heart in it,”.
When looking to the future, Elizabeth and Joann have big ideas and great hopes. Front and center, though, is the need to have access in schools to teach sex ed and give young people in Imperial Valley the sexual and reproductive health care materials that they need. Elizabeth sums it up with, “I see the difference that we’re getting there and we still need to do more work.”