GASTONIA, N.C. -- She’s a sexually active 16-year-old looking for birth control advice.
He’s a high school football player in need of a quick sports physical.
Another student needs a round of immunizations.
All these young people could wind up at the new Teen Wellness Center at the Gaston County Health Department.
It’s a place teens can come with almost any kind of medical problem – with or without their parents or guardians.
All the services have been available before, but at different locations scattered around the county.
For many teens, transportation was a problem, and when they did arrive they felt uneasy in a crowded waiting room with adults. The drab institutional setting made things worse.
Now everything is in one place, brightly colored and welcoming with a teen-only waiting area.
Comprehensive health services include preventative care, free contraceptives/birth control, sexually transmitted infection testing for females and counseling on sexually transmitted diseases.
Teens can get one-on-one counseling about the risks of being sexually active, along with physicals, immunizations, prescriptions.
They can file with their parents’ insurance.
Or in cases where confidentiality is requested, the charge for services is on a sliding scale based on the income of the teen.
The center is funded by the Gaston Youth Connected initiative, a $5.8 million project of the Durham-based Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina.
Developing the clinic took about two years. During that time Gaston health officials toured a similar facility in Charleston, S.C., and the Teen Health Connection in Charlotte. Officials say the Gaston clinic has been well received by teens and adults.
“It’s one-stop shopping,” said Gaston County Health Director Chris Dobbins. “We’re trying to remove as many barriers as we can for young people to get questions answered and needs met.”
Sensitivity to those needs has been a guide while organizing the center. Officials asked teens what they wanted. Convenience and a friendly environment for young folks topped the list.
Lack of transportation was an issue for teens in outlying towns, so satellite wellness centers are available in Bessemer City, Cherryville and the Highland community in Gastonia.
Officials hope to open another satellite center in 2013.
The wellness clinic at the main health department is more than 2,250-square feet, located in the front of the building.
“It’s the very first door in the health department,” said Teen Health Advocate Brittain Kenney. “Teens don’t have to wander around the building looking for offices. And everything looks different. Bright colors. Trendy art work. Teens don’t feel like they’re going to a health department. It’s their place.”
Staff members volunteered for the clinic because they wanted to work with teenagers, Kenney said.
And they’re trained to recognize high risk behavior.
A teen may come in for birth control advice and then be referred to a specialist for mental health or drug abuse issues.
Walk-in patients are welcome but appointments are encouraged.
Kenney hopes teens develop “ongoing relationships” with the staff. “We want to be a familiar face,” she said.
Depending on the medical issue, some teens who come to the clinic don’t want their parents around; others are OK with them being there.
Adults are always welcome and have their own waiting area at the clinic, Kenney said. Relationships can also be established with adults.
She recalled a woman who was having trouble talking to her daughter about sex. Kenney provided brochures on how to talk to teens about such matters.
“It’s not one-sided,” Kenney said. “All the information isn’t going to teens.”
Teen pregnancy drops
Gaston County’s teen pregnancy rate (for girls 15-19 years old) dropped 18.5 percent in 2011 to a record low, according to data from the North Carolina State Center for Health Services.
The Gaston County Board of Health, along with other community health organizations, has made teen pregnancy prevention one of its top public health priorities.
The Teen Wellness Center is one of several teen pregnancy prevention and reduction programs.
Sally Swanson with the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina said teen wellness clinics aren’t common in the state, but it’s a sound concept. Dedicated space reserved for teens provides low cost, high quality and teen-friendly services.
“So far, we have seen teens responding very positively to this resource,” she said. .
Gaston County Medical Director Velma Taormina said teens are also encouraged to involve their parents in the wellness center.
“We don’t want kids to be doing things in secret,” she said. “We want to encourage dialogue with mom and dad.”
The wellness clinic is averaging about 15 teens a day. A recent survey showed that more than 88 percent said they’d come back. “So far, everything is very, very positive,” Taormina said. “We feel it’s worthwhile.”
Alexus Costner, 18, is president of the Teen Action council, a group that worked with the team designing the clinic. The teens made recommendations about everything from what kind of paint went on the walls to the type of magazines in the waiting room.
They even suggested adding a computer for social network access.
“We didn’t want a gloomy-type building,” said Alexus, a senior at Highland School of Technology in Gastonia. “There’s a different vibe and energy when you walk in.”
She continues to spread the word about the clinic, feeling good “that I’ve done something that could possibly help someone down the road.”