SisterReach spreads message of empowerment to women, girls regarding reproductive health

The Commercial Appeal published the article “SisterReach spreads message of empowerment to women, girls regarding reproductive health” by Lesley Young.

Jerrod Gunter can appreciate candor, particularly when
it applies to his youth congregation at New Direction Christian Church.

When SisterReach founder Cherisse Scott brought her
frank message about sex education to the church, the plain-spoken single mother
and her communiqué were definite crowd-pleasers.

“She was really good,” Gunter said. “The kids really
liked her and her upfront persona. It was a very matter-of-fact and
in-your-face type of message.”

As the CEO of the nonprofit organization working for
“reproductive justice” in the Mid-South, Scott, 38, of Midtown, wouldn’t have
it any other way.

“The way I work is very transparent and intentional,”
Scott said. “(I work) to make sure I support women’s and girls’ stories and
lives and to make sure they have access to the right information around their
reproductive and sexual health so that they can make informed decisions about
themselves and therefore become advocates for themselves.”

Scott defines reproductive justice as “the complete
physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic and social well-being of women
and girls (that) will be achieved when women and girls have the economic,
social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about their
bodies, sexuality and reproduction for themselves, their families, and their
communities in all areas of their lives.”

She is working toward this in the Mid-South with
outreach programs offering education, advocacy and training through the nearly
two-year-old foundation.

Her message at New Direction expressed the importance
of teens valuing themselves and their bodies and understanding mixed messages
and misperceptions presented by the media concerning teens and sex.

“This generation thinks they’re finding loopholes by
not having intercourse,” Gunter said. “Cherisse told them oral sex is still
sex; it’s just sex orally and that they’re just as in danger.”

In addition to speaking at New Direction about sexual
health, she and her team of 20 volunteers and interns have taken similar
programs to close to 20 other churches, nearly as many schools, including Omni
Prep Academy, and more than a half-dozen community centers in the area.

She has held health fairs in ZIP codes identified as
having high at-risk populations, including the Orange Mound community;
participated in the sponsorship of the 2012 International AIDS Conference,
Memphis Hub, and has partnered with organizations such as the Memphis Center
for Reproductive Health to help with their services and extend her own reach.

“We’ve had great support from the community,” Scott
said. “We were adopted by Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church for a month.
They made donations and made sure they were providing any support we needed.”

The latest project launched by the SisterReach team
includes work with the University of Memphis through the Tennessee Board of
Regents and the school’s sociology department.

Women in at-risk communities — those with higher
poverty levels and lower educational achievement — are “more likely to drop out
due to pregnancy or other things related to sexual health,” Scott said. “We
want them to know where to go to get a pap smear or emergency contraception or
to get tested. We want them to know we are here and of service of them and to
connect them to resources available to them.”

Scott calls herself an “armor bearer,” particularly
due to her own experience.

The former Chicago resident found herself looking for
a pregnancy termination, and when she showed up for her appointment, the office
that had advertised itself as an abortion clinic revealed itself to be a
counseling center.

“I felt duped, thinking I was going to get one
service, and getting something entirely different,” she said.

Scott kept her baby, now a 10-year-old son, but the
experience left her scarred and impassioned to help other women.

SisterReach isn’t limited to just women or the poor,
she said. She offers programs for families and men, training for volunteers,
and job training and procurement services.

And while her support has grown, garnering independent
donations and grants, it has been a struggle. Still, she has no regrets.

“I’m someone who understands because I’ve been there,”
she said. “I’m a black parent. I’m a single parent. I’m not rich, and I don’t
have health care. I know what it’s like without social support. It’s a labor of
love. Would I continue without any support? Absolutely.”

For more information about SisterReach, call (901)
310-5488, or visit sisterreach.org.

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