Minority Teens With Health Conditions Gain Confidence Through OHSU Outreach Program

03/12/01    Portland, Ore.

Center on Self-Determination's Teen Solutions Youth Leadership Group Gives Students Hope

Josh Kemp has spent most of his teen-age years being teased by other students, feeling uncomfortable interacting with peers and has had trouble making friends. Other teens may experience similar social challenges, but for the 18-year-old senior at Portland's Marshall High School, they are intensified because he has Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Josh has problems communicating in social settings and reading non-verbal body language. On top of that, his Hispanic background makes him feel even more alienated from other teens. Experts say teens with disabilities or health conditions have more unemployment and underemployment; higher school dropout rates; more difficulty living independently and fewer opportunities to go to college.

An Oregon Health Sciences University's Center on Self-Determination program called Teen Solutions has helped Josh and other teens gain more self-confidence. For the first time in his life he feels comfortable speaking in front of large audiences and now gives talks to teachers, health care providers and other groups locally and nationally about what it's like to have a disability. Currently Josh is organizing several workshops for the group on topics such as finances, job interviewing and taxes. He now has more friends and plans to go to college after he graduates from high school next spring.

"I've learned a lot about leadership and standing up for myself through Teen Solutions," said Josh. "Being a part of this group has definitely helped me realize what I can do."

"At school Josh doesn't feel accepted -- in Teen Solutions he does. He can share his ideas and speak up to make those ideas happen," said Debra Zavala, Josh's mother. "This program has shown Josh he has potential and can go far."

Teen Solutions is a leadership and mentoring program for minority teens who experience disabilities and/or special health care conditions, such as allergies, autism, cerebral palsy, visual or communication impairments, epilepsy, diabetes or heart disease. The group is geared toward Native American, African American and Hispanic youth between the ages of 13 and 21. Each month about 20 students meet to learn leadership and self-advocacy skills, discuss community outreach opportunities and socialize. Josh's speaking engagements is one example of the ways the group reaches out to help educate others about what it's like to live with a disability and how best to support these teens in their goal of becoming self-determined. The activities of Teen Solutions are overseen by staff of the Community

Solutions Project, a project which works in collaboration with the Portland Public School District and other community organizations, and whose main objective is to help culturally diverse youth learn how to speak up and advocate for themselves.

Teen Solutions was founded in the fall of 1997 by three teens as a way to support kids who are facing isolation and lack of confidence because of their health condition and their ethnicity. "These kids have dreams. But when they're isolated, they don't know how to achieve them. This program gives them hope that their dreams are reachable in little steps," said Maria Mendez, Teen Solutions leader.

A new group within Teen Solutions, which just started this year, already is helping teens take closer steps toward their dreams of college. Josh is one of four to five students who meet monthly as part of the College Club. This subgroup helps students identify how their own personal interests match with the career opportunities that are available.

"When I was young I didn't think about college," said Josh. This semester he plans to try out for the spring school play in preparation for his college goal of studying acting.

Currently the Teen Solutions group is working on designing a float and rap song for the Portland Rose Festival Starlight parade as a community outreach project.

As part of their outreach mission, Teens Solutions members speak to groups of teen about their disabilities and what living with a disability is like. Mendez would like to see more teens join Teen Solutions. She says the more members there are in the group the more opportunities the teens will have to grow.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Media is invited to the Teen Solutions group meeting on March 14 from 4:30 - 6 p.m. at the Center for Self-Determination, 3608 S.E. Powell Blvd. If you are interested in coming to that meeting, please contact Christine Pashley at 503 494-8231 to arrange.