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The YES team: Lobbying for a school health center

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An industrial-power vacuum in the hallway sucks the quiet out of the conference room, but Jhana Parikh—a jaunty 16-year-old with no apparent need for adolescent awkwardness—shouts over it.

Her teammates, equally precocious 15-year-old Hannah Klaus and 17-year-old Dynasty Winters, laugh. They're seated at a conference table at the team's nondescript but cluttered Raleigh office on Louisburg Road, surrounded by stacks of poster boards, hand-signed T-shirts and post cards.

The materials are used to persuade politicians many years their senior that Wake County's 27,000 or so uninsured teens deserve attention.

"I needed a job," says Parikh, a junior at Enloe High School in East Raleigh. "And this is so much more meaningful than bagging groceries."

The teens make up Wake County's Youth Empowered Solutions (YES) team. They have been meeting in this dingy conference room since June 2010, firing off petitions, postcards and a 14-page proposal to school administrators to create a school-based health center in the county.

The center would, as the team puts it, serve as a doctor's office on school grounds, providing health care to low-income and uninsured students without primary-care providers.

Systems should have a student-to-nurse ratio of 750 to 1 in middle and high schools, they say. In Wake County, that ratio is about 2,317 to 1.

Fifty-seven centers exist in North Carolina, including three in Durham County. But in Wake County—home of the state's largest school system and 16th-largest in the nation—there are none.

"Good quality health care is something that everybody should have," says Parikh.

In Wake County, their cause seems especially significant. A 2010 report from the nonpartisan N.C. Institute of Medicine reported that 27,701 uninsured children live in Wake County. Mecklenburg County is the only county with a larger number, although as a percentage of its youth, Wake ranks somewhere in the middle of the state, with 11.1 percent.

YES team members must make their case with top school administrators in February.

"It just never amazes me anymore what the kids will do to help others," Wake County Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey says of the YES team.

Gainey says the school system, like many in the state, has seen its budget tighten as the recession deepened and state lawmakers searched for savings, leaving many projects unfunded.

Marvin Connelly, assistant superintendent for student support services in Wake schools, says the project will need buy-in from the superintendent, as well as major health care providers.

The providers will need to run the clinic, not the school system, he says. The team has already initiated such talks with Wake County's health department, as well as Rex Hospital, Wake Health Services and UNC Health Care.

"It wasn't just a project or an assignment that they needed to do and be done with," Connelly says of the team. "These students have demonstrated a real passion for this over time."

Winters, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School, started fighting for the Wake center two years ago. In search of extra-curricular activities, Winters found the YES work more appealing then traditional clubs.

The work has changed her. Winters once wanted to be a corporate lawyer, but now she wants to advocate for social equality through policy work. She says the YES team's efforts have gone from the classroom—where classmates were stirred by her arguments—to a national youth conference in New Mexico, and finally to the N.C. General Assembly, where she met with state lawmakers last year to lobby for public funding.

"When they see youth lobbyists, the conversation probably goes in a different direction than you might think," she says with a smile. In a room full of lobbyists, sometimes sticking out is the best thing you can do, she says.

Klaus is the youngest of the group. A sophomore at Enloe High, she's soft-spoken, but she sounds like a veteran lobbyist when she talks about building a network.

That means making a case for student health centers with students, school administrators, politicians and feisty parents. Parents might just be the toughest ones to convince.

"There are some misconceptions about school-based health centers," Klaus says, adding that some parents were led to believe the centers would teach sex education or distribute condoms, forbidden in some socially conservative households.

But Klaus says the centers would instead offer immunizations and general health care. Once parents and teachers hear their argument, they're typically swayed, the team says.

"It makes you mad when somebody else has something and you don't," Parikh says.

If they land the funding to launch a center, Winters, Parikh and Klaus say their fight will not be over. One center isn't enough, they say.

"Why not have one in all the schools?" Parikh says.

All 169 of them?

"Why not?"

This article appeared in print with the headline "They don't take no for an answer."

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