Just WAIT offers help to all teens
By RACHEL COLEMAN
Tina Rickman isn’t sure why decision-makers at USD 480 said “no thanks” to her group’s offer of a free, supplementary sex education and health program that emphasizes abstinence and relationship skills.
After her presentation in April, the USD 480 school board referred the matter to curriculum director Lana Evans and a review committee. At May’s meeting, they reported to the board that the program, sometimes referred to as “Get Real” but properly known as “Just WAIT” (an acronym for “Why Am I Tempted?”) was not a good fit for the district.
“That’s the funny part I don’t understand,” Rickman, an Oklahoma Panhandle resident, said. She joked that “Maybe if we charged, they’d let us in! Seriously, though, Just WAIT is not trying to take over USD 480’s curriculum, we’re just trying to add to it.”
The Liberal school district has material in place that covers many of the same subjects Just WAIT targets, Rickman said — physical, intellectual and emotional health, as well as relationship skills, the ability to say “no,” and straight talk about the practical consequences of sexual activity.
“We’d be enhancing it, and that’s important,” she said. “If enough people are tackling the same concept, if enough people are teaching the same thing, and the kids realize, ‘Hey, my mom’s saying this, the teachers are saying it, the nurse says it, that lady from Guymon is saying it, there’s got to be some truth in it.’ If enough people say the same thing, it gets embedded.”
There’s clearly a need for that message, Rickman said, pointing to Seward County’s infamous status as the Kansas county with the highest teen pregnancy rate.
“It’s nearly double the percentage you see in other places,” she said. “So we know there are lot of kids having sex.”
That said, Rickman still believes there’s a place for her program’s abstinence-based message, delivered in a five-day series of workshop sessions. While the program is faith-based, the material presented in Just WAIT is made for the secular world with its gritty realities. Amid the mess, Rickman says it is possible to hold students to a high standard.
“Just because they’ve had sex doesn’t mean we must teach them contraception,” she said. “That just says to them that it’s OK to continue with that kind of behavior. Just WAIT teaches kids that haven’t had sex how to stick with that. We teach those who have had sex how to start over and live a free life.”
The idea that some sexually active teens might give up the habit and opt for a life of purity is not unreasonable, Rickman said, if you look at the underlying issues. At least half the children growing up in the United States come from broken or one-parent homes; they struggle with trust, with stability, and with their own need for affection. All they know “is what they’ve been subjected to,” she said.
“So many kids don’t believe there’s such a thing as a lasting marriage because they’ve never seen one. They’ve got single moms, and I’ve got to give it to single moms who are raising kids alone, which is something I wouldn’t be able to do — but they’ve got boyfriends over, and the kids think, ‘Well, it’s got to be OK because Momma wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.’ But I let these kids know that just because people did it, that doesn’t make it right.”
More than presenting a particular doctrine or religious viewpoint, Just WAIT focuses on “everyday life things,” said Rickman. “This is about, how do you do things a little different?”
Thus, the core of the Just WAIT program is a presentation of how things can be for young people who are right on the cusp of moving toward serious relationships that might lead to marriage.
“This program teaches them how to put an end to the underlying issues — which are mainly about trust — so that someday they can have healthy marriages. It’s those hidden issues that come from having sex before they’re married that teach them all the wrong things about how to be in a relationship, and that leads to the high divorce rate,” Rickman said. “Kids don’t want to go through that. They see it, they live with it, they don’t want to repeat it.”
As for shocking questions that might derail a prim and proper abstinence-only speaker, Rickman laughs.
“I have experience on both sides of that spectrum. I’m very able to handle any and all questions that venture beyond virginity because I was one of those kids who did,” she said. “I’m not proud of it, but to talk to these kids, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Kids today, if you don’t have any experience, they don’t even want to talk to you: ‘Talk to the hand, leave me alone,’ is the attitude you get.”
Rickman’s assistant, Keylan King, is a 22-year-old single mother who brings her own life experience of starting over in abstinence to the program.
“She’s closer to their age, but she’s certified in the WAIT program and the kids relate to her. We don’t sugar-coat things. We tell them the truth,” Rickman said.
While school nurses have voiced reservations about out-of-town speakers who visit Liberal schools, then leave their audience with unasked follow-up questions, sometimes it’s an advantage to come and go.
“In Guymon, I’ve talked to teachers who said they notice teens often ask questions of someone they may not have to face everyday. Then they don’t have to feel so uncomfortable next week when they come to school,” Rickman observed. “So there are advantages to both approaches, and I’m willing to leave a phone number and talk to kids anytime. I love talking to them, and being able to say, ‘This is where I was, which is where you are — and this is where you can go next. You can have healthy relationships and the life you want.’ We teach them how to do this.”
Following the Just WAIT presentation to the USD 480 school board in April, curriculum director Lana Evans said she wanted to set up a committee that would review the problems of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Though it’s not a “school issue,” the district wants to help the community address the problem of Seward County’s high teen pregnancy rate.
USD 480 board president Reid Petty requested that the committee include Just WAIT’s Tina Rickman. She said she looks forward to the chance to collaborate.
After Just WAIT worked with the Guymon public school system, Rickman said the pregnancy rate among middle- and high-school students dropped to less than half the previous numbers, from 59 in 2007 to 24 the 2010-2011 school year. She believes the change is largely the result of cooperative effort between parents, community groups like Panhandle for Life and the school district.
“Like Lana said, it’s not just the school that should deal with this issue,” Rickman said. “It’s the family, it’s the kids and it’s the community. To be on that committee doesn’t mean I’m going to push my program on them; I have information and contacts and I want to be part of the solution.”