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WeARE open: New family planning clinic opens doors Monday in Brainerd

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Becky Twamley (left), Sue Hadland, Jen VanHorn and Julie Ingleman are prepared to open WeARE The Clinic on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. The family planning clinic will be the first in Crow Wing County in five years and is focused on comprehensive reproductive health care and services. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service2 / 2

BRAINERD, Minn. — What was once no more than a vision among like-minded women passionate about reproductive health will open its doors Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

WeARE The Clinic will be the first family planning clinic to operate in the 15th most populous Minnesota county — Crow Wing — in more than five years, situated at 424 James St. in west Brainerd.

The goal of the clinic, championed by nonprofit WeARE Advocates for Reproductive Education, is to serve primarily youths and young adults in need of all things related to their sexual health. WeARE Executive Director Becky Twamley said services will cover three main areas: sexually transmitted diseases testing and treatment, birth control and pregnancy testing, and comprehensive reproductive education.

"Anyone can come in anytime and just ask to speak to a nurse and sit down in a counseling room and ask whatever they want," Twamley said during a tour of the clinic. "We really are promoting the idea of changing the culture around sexual health, and this is the place to come if you need questions answered."

After Brainerd's Planned Parenthood clinic closed following federal funding cuts in 2011, a clinic that replaced it folded soon after under economic and logistic pressures. Since then, the closest option offering confidential reproductive health care was a once-a-month family planning clinic across the Cass County line in Pine River.

WeARE The Clinic will close that gap. It has three paid staff members, including retired nurse practitioner Sue Hadland and registered nurse clinic manager Jen VanHorn. The group has garnered tremendous community support, said Julie Ingleman of Lake Shore, one of the founders of WeARE. This is demonstrated through donations as well as volunteers, of which WeARE The Clinic counts more than 100.

VanHorn is also a nursing instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd and said she strongly believes in the mission of WeARE. VanHorn got to know the group's leaders when they organized an STD testing day at the college, which does not offer a health care center to its approximately 6,000 students.

"The need is definitely real, and I think there's a lot of obstacles that really exist as well," VanHorn said. "I think WeARE sort of helps clear the way for some of those obstacles for people that otherwise are going to go without this type of care, this type of treatment, this type of support."

The waiting room — doubling as a community meeting space — will be home to a growing library of literature on the topic, and a youth advisory council is helping steer programming and outreach to peers. A recent open house for youths drew nearly 40 teens and young adults, many of whom are familiar with WeARE through its monthly SxTalks at Brainerd teen center The Shop.

"I think we really believe in a community-based model, and one of the tenets of that is to listen to the voices of the people that you're serving," Twamley said. "Our mission is to serve youth and young adults in the community, and I think they're really going to be a critical piece to that. They're very engaged. They've been waiting for this to happen."

Brainerd High School senior Maison Jobe wants her peers to know it's OK to talk about sex and the responsibilities that come along with it.

Jobe, 17, is one of several members of the youth advisory committee. Before her involvement with WeARE, Jobe once volunteered to teach the sex education curriculum ENABL — Education Now and Babies Later — to eighth-graders in the district after going through the program herself. She said she was unhappy with the curriculum, feeling as though it scared students rather than informed.

"Suddenly, being exposed to an initiative that was attempting to fill in the gaps of our education was really important to me," Jobe said of WeARE. "You're enabling kids and teenagers and young adults and middle-aged adults all to have access to this information that is considered generally taboo, but is truly a part of our daily lives as well."

Fellow BHS senior Anna Dillon, 18, said she recognizes a need for what WeARE offers among young people in the greater Brainerd community.

"I think that having this clinic and gearing it toward teens and early adult ages, I think that it shows that it's not shameful, that it's very welcoming," Dillon said. "I think that it shows that not only they don't have to be afraid, that they have more options than what's just taught here, so I think that it offers that for them."

Jobe and Dillon are working to generate awareness of the health care and education possibilities at the clinic. Jobe said WeARE has the opportunity for broad impact in the community as a whole.

"Because of the high teen pregnancy rate in our county, I feel like the access to contraceptives and contraceptive information will be really helpful in lowering that, and thereby improving the lives of teenagers in our area, especially those who may be from a lower socioeconomic class," Jobe said. "Also the STI (sexually transmitted infections) testing that we offer and information with regard to STIs can help in the long run as far as health goes."

Jobe's citation of high teen pregnancy rates in Crow Wing County is backed up by Minnesota Department of Health data — numbers troubling to the women of WeARE.

In 2014, Crow Wing County ranked 11th among all Minnesota counties for its adolescent birth rate, nearly twice as high as the state average. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the county recorded 28.1 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 compared to the state birth rate of 15.5 per 1,000 among the same population.

The difference between the county and state among 18- to 19-year-olds only was more stark. Statewide, that population recorded a birth rate of 28.4 per 1,000, but in Crow Wing County, the rate was 66.1 per 1,000.

Teen pregnancy isn't the only reproductive health quandary faced by sexual health advocates. The prevalence of STDs — particularly chlamydia, the most common communicable disease in Minnesota — is highest among 15- to 19-year-olds in the state. Despite that group making up just 7 percent of the population, it is responsible for 24 percent of reported chlamydia cases and 16 percent of reported gonorrhea cases.

The state as a whole and Crow Wing County in particular have seen a rise in reported chlamydia cases, MDH reports. In 2000, 48 cases were reported in the county. Fifteen years later, 137 cases were reported.

The leaders of WeARE hope to make a dent in these numbers by offering confidential and affordable care. Those receiving medical care through the clinic will have the opportunity to utilize the Minnesota Family Planning Program, which for those who qualify based on income, offers free family planning services to patients. Twamley noted most youths and young adults would meet these requirements, and those who do not will be served on a sliding fee scale based on federal poverty guidelines.

Although some are skeptical or even hostile toward the group's mission, raising concerns about abortion, Twamley said WeARE The Clinic will not perform nor refer pregnant girls or women for abortions.

"But certainly, our belief is any patient who comes here and is pregnant will be given information about all of their options, which is parenthood, adoption and abortion," Twamley said. "We believe strongly that youth and young people in particular have a right to accurate information and access to services. And we know that if we provide those two things, that unintended pregnancy rates drop, and that's what this is about."

Plans in the works include additional community outreach, particularly at CLC. The group will partner with the community college on an outreach clinic, providing at the very least education and likely STD testing and treatment. VanHorn said this was a great opportunity not only for nursing students — who could get involved in a hands-on health care system — but for the student population as a whole.

"That's probably an ideal location to reach as many as people as possible," VanHorn said.

Twamley said some type of education event is in the pipeline for October, recently declared "Let's Talk Month" by Gov. Mark Dayton to encourage "open and honest conversation with young people about relationships and sexuality."

"We want parents here, too," Ingleman said.

"Ideally that's what we want, is families to have these conversations early so people are comfortable saying these words, having these discussions," VanHorn said.

More on WeARE The Clinic

WeARE The Clinic opens Monday. Located at 424 James St., it will maintain clinic hours noon to 5 p.m. Mondays and 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

A community open house will be 5-7 p.m. Oct. 25, offering tours of the space and a thank-you to donors and volunteers.

For more information, call 218-454-1546.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

(218) 855-5874
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