Sasha Bruce Youthwork's POWER Program Director Deanna Pruitt (second from right), with (from left) peer educators Diamond, Todd and Keyla. The POWER team spreads a safe-sex message among District youths. Diamond and Keyla are sporting condom-wrapper costumes. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The young members of the Sasha Bruce Youthwork POWER program — it stands for “Prevention Outreach Wellness Education and Risk Reduction” — are explaining various slang terms used by kids in the District.

A random person is Bob, Slim or Mo. A crack addict is a cluck. Someone who has sex with a lot of people is a thot.

Then we’re into terms for specific sex acts.

“Wait,” I ask, looking up from my notebook. “[Redacted] means [redacted]? But why does [redacted] means [redacted]?”

Deanna Pruitt laughs.

“This is precisely why they are the front line,” she says. “I try to say that, and people would be like ‘What?’ ”

Deanna is the 31-year-old director of the POWER Program. Sasha Bruce, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, is best known for helping homeless youths in our area get off the streets. It also uses peer educators to spread the word about safe sex and healthy relationships.

“Our program is sex-positive, comprehensive sex education,” Deanna said. “We don’t do abstinence-only. It has been proven not to work, especially with our age group. So we aren’t going out and telling people, ‘Don’t have sex.’ We’re saying, ‘Here are your options for preventing HIV, for preventing pregnancy.’ ”

The audience is a lot more receptive when the message comes from someone their age or a bit older.

POWER has five peer educators between the ages of 18 and 24, along with a staff of four and an intern. They speak to groups around town — including at two Sasha Bruce drop-in centers where homeless youths gather for a meal and a shower — and fan out to places where young people congregate: Gallery Place, Eastern Market, Union Station . . .

The peer educators distribute condoms — 13,000 last year — and let young people know they can be tested for HIV and other STDs at the POWER offices at 701-B Maryland Ave. NE.

“I know that when I first started here, I was kind of squeamish about walking up to people and handing out condoms,” said Todd, a 20-year-old female peer educator. (The POWER Program peer educators asked that I use just their nicknames or first names.)

The team members work in pairs or groups of three and are trained on how to broach the subject of condoms, sex and STDs.

“I say, ‘I’m from the Sasha Bruce POWER Program. Have you ever heard of Sasha Bruce?’ ” Todd said. “Then I casually mention, ‘I have condoms, if you want them.’ If they say no, I say, ‘Do you know anyone who may need them?’ ”

If the person is uninterested, the peer educators don’t press the issue.

In the year that Todd has been a peer educator, she has learned the dynamics of these interactions. If there is a boy among the peer educators when they approach a group of girls, they’re likely to be ignored.

“They’re not going to want to talk to you,” Todd said. “They’re going to walk right past you.”

Deanna said, “They feel judged: ‘I’m not having sex.’ ”

“It’s an embarrassment,” Todd said.

And how about if it’s a group of just boys?

“Nine times out of 10, the boys will stop” and take the condoms, Todd said.

The peer educators work 15 hours a week and are paid. Many learned about the job because they were clients of Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

“The reason I love this so much is because I grew up with a family who was very secretive and quiet about sex or diseases or things like that,” said Diamond, a 24-year-old bisexual man. “It was not really talked about.”

Diamond finds this sad. “I feel most parents start to care to teach them when something bad happens,” he said. “And why should we wait till something happens to educate our children? Or educate ourselves? Because let’s be honest, if they’re not educating their children, they’re not educating themselves.

“I want to educate more young people that your lives are more important than unprotected sex. Safe sex is the best sex, and if you don’t have a condom, don’t have sex at all.”

That’s a message that doesn’t need redacting.

You can help

Kids who are homeless often trade sex for a place to stay, deciding it’s the lesser danger. Of course, a safe home would be a better option.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork provides that. It also provides other supportive services in the District, including urging young people to practice safe sex. You can support this work.

To donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” and mail it to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.