It's an unseasonably warm Monday night, and nine women are gathered in a small living room on Madison's south side. They chat in Spanish, both with each other and their children, while water and snacks sit on the coffee table. Laughter fills the room as the kids energetically run around the house, largely ignoring their mothers.
This isn't a children's play date, however - it's a home health party. With an easel propped up in the corner with the word "sex" written on it, health educator Elvia Montes grabs the group's attention by saying a few welcoming words in Spanish and begins the party. On tonight's agenda: cultural values in sexuality.
Home health parties are the invention of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin (PPWI) and are specially developed for Latinos. Maria Barker, PPWI's multicultural program manager, began implementing them in 2006 as a response to the high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the Latino population. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Latino teen birth rates are 3.5 times greater, and STD rates 1.6 times greater, than in the Caucasian population. Add to that the fact that communication about sex is nearly nonexistent within the Latino community, Barker notes. As a Latina herself, she knew something needed to be done.
"I noticed a lot of my friends having jewelry parties and thought to myself, why can't we do that? Not selling jewelry, but selling information," Barker says. "And if they won't come to us, we'll go to them."
A typical home health party involves a small group of attendees - usually 10 family members and friends of the party's volunteer host. It's led by a trained promotore de salud (health educator), who gives a two-hour interactive presentation and discussion on one of seven topics: cultural values in sexuality, anatomy, puberty, adult/child communication, birth control, STDs, and breast and cervical cancer. Planned Parenthood provides each party host childcare, if needed, and offers a stipend to buy snacks so that hosting isn't a financial burden.
"We strive to make our home health parties a comfortable, nonjudgmental place to educate families with fact-based, medically accurate and age-appropriate information," says Barker. "It's a safe place to discuss values about sexuality."
In crafting the home health party model, Barker knew the curriculum needed to be culturally relevant and geared toward the entire family, not just women. She says sex and sexuality are often considered bad in the Latino culture, which is predominantly Catholic. It tends to discourage sex before marriage and birth control, and it lacks open communication on issues related to sex and sexuality.
"I never once saw a Spanish-speaking mother bring in her daughter to our clinic. Young Latina women aren't talking to their parents about sex. Most say they grew up knowing nothing and are terrified of sex and their period - they ask what an orgasm is," says Barker.
Marilu Roblero knows firsthand just how taboo the issue is. Growing up in Mexico, Roblero says she never had the opportunity to talk about sex with her parents, even after meeting her first boyfriend at age 16. Now living in Madison with her husband and two daughters, she attended her first home health party after a friend invited her.
"It's different here [in the U.S.]. Before, it was no good to talk about reproductive health with your kids. But kids learn so quickly, and we see the value of it, so we can change it and open the lines of communication for our kids," Roblero says.
In its first year of operation, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin was able to reach 800 Latinos with just one health educator. Last year, it reached more than 5,000 Latinos by hosting hundreds of home health parties in Madison and Milwaukee with a team of 10 health educators.
The program has enjoyed such widespread success in the Latino community that it has received the support of Father Alvaro Nova, a pro-life Milwaukee-area priest. Father Nova became educated as a health promoter to help PPWI address topics related to sexuality and faith. This year, he will partner with PPWI to host the 5th Annual Latino Summit, a retreat stressing the importance of having conversations about sex and sexuality.
Support for home health parties is growing nationally. PPWI is currently in the midst of a two-year planning grant to evaluate how to best expand the home health party outreach model and has already implemented versions of the program in schools and churches. Earlier this month, Barker was invited to speak on a panel at the White House to offer insight on how to implement the home health party model on a national scale.
The key to the success of home health parties, however, remains keeping them small and keeping them local.
For many Latina women and their families, home health parties have offered welcoming social circles within their community to talk about all sorts of issues, like the differences between the women's experiences growing up in Latin America and their children's experiences growing up in the U.S.
For Roblero, this welcoming social circle has been especially important. She's the only member of her family living in the United States. "I would like to come to more parties. To have a group of people to talk about all of these issues with - about sex, about my children. These ladies have become my friends."
For more information on home health parties, contact Maria Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 414-289-3788.