Guest post by: Anthony Almazan
Peer Health Exchange Volunteer

Peer Health Exchange (PHE), GreenLight Boston’s fourth portfolio organization, works to give teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. They do this by training college students to teach a comprehensive health curriculum in public high schools that lack health education. In this guest post Anthony Almazan, a second-year PHE volunteer from Harvard University, shares how he inspires and is inspired by his students.

Every week or so, I step into a new classroom full of 9th graders, ready to share my knowledge around health and wellness. Nearly thirty times I’ve delivered the scripted lines of my Peer Health Exchange curriculum, peppered with the same “spontaneous” jokes for extra flavor. But no two classrooms are ever the same. The wild laughter in one classroom might be replaced by diligent silence in another. The classrooms reflect the diversity of the students themselves, who hail from various backgrounds, carry a variety of different preconceptions about their health and fall along a vast spectrum of tolerance for my attempts at being funny. The students I encounter never fail to get me thinking about my place in these classrooms. This past year, three very different students reminded me why I love getting up at 6 a.m. to ensure Boston’s teenagers are empowered with accurate information to make good decisions about their health.

Peer Health Exchange volunteers in the classroom.
There was the student who trusted me. She was a girl of few words who sank quietly into the back of the classroom. I finished my workshop, but she stayed behind to catch me on my way out. She had been waiting to ask me privately if a specific activity she had engaged in could put a teenager at risk of an unplanned pregnancy. It was a simple question, but it was an important exchange for the both of us. Asking these kinds of questions as a teenager is not easy, and identifying trusted sources of support can be even more difficult. For students who may not feel comfortable talking to a parent or teacher about these issues, having a Peer Health Exchange volunteer in the classroom could mean being able to ask a question that would otherwise go unanswered – and could potentially threaten their health. An encounter like this one is exactly why I like to wait around the classroom a bit after my workshops end, just in case student gathers the courage to ask me something that could be entrusted to no one else.

There was the student who challenged me. Confident and outspoken, he was the school’s resident skeptic. He criticized the validity of our curriculum, demanded sources for our statistics, and made sure to interrupt me to point out if I ever misspoke. Unsure if he was genuinely frustrated with our workshop, I spoke to him individually as the rest of the class began a group activity. I asked him where he learned so much about this topic, and told him that I had nothing but respect for his knowledge. He loosened up for the rest of the class period, and during our discussions he contributed some of the most insightful comments I had ever heard in my workshops. I returned to his school a few weeks later for another workshop and passed him in the hallway. He greeted me with a smile and a “What’s up, man?” Students like him remind me of the importance of our volunteers’ roles in these classrooms. We trade in strict discipline for witty banter and the benefit of the doubt, knowing that our goal is not simply to direct a classroom but to engage its students in meaningful discussions about their health. Our volunteers know that not too long ago, we were sitting in classrooms like the ones we now teach in, and by capitalizing on what we share, we open up important lines of dialogue with our teenagers.

There was the student who inspired me. She was the attentive girl who sat in the front row poised to absorb my every word. She was the kind of student who made teaching about tough topics easy. I returned to her school a few months later to teach a different group of students and saw her familiar face on the way to my classroom. She stopped me in the hallway to hand me a flyer for an HIV/AIDS awareness event and to tell me that Peer Health Exchange had motivated her to help plan the event by joining a local health advocacy organization. I asked her how Peer Health Exchange had encouraged her to get so involved. Her answer? “You were all so inspiring.” She is a testament to the power of a group of volunteers that genuinely cares about the health of our teenagers—that doesn’t just teach about health but firmly believes in everyone’s right to it. We recruit volunteers who are passionate about the health of our students based on the conviction that our conversations in these classrooms can teach these students to care, not just for their own health, but also for the well being of those around them.

A friend once asked me why I choose to dedicate so much time to Peer Health Exchange. These three students are the answer to that question. Our volunteers step into each classroom with good intentions, and every so often, we encounter a student who gains something immeasurably valuable and reminds us why we do what we do.