There was a time when opening an independent family planning clinic seemed like a lofty goal for a small group of Brainerd area women who are passionate about sexual health.
Six years after the closure of a longtime Planned Parenthood clinic brought them together, the nonprofit WeARE Advocates for Reproductive Education made accessible, confidential reproductive health care a reality in October when WeARE The Clinic opened its doors.
The clinic’s founders have backgrounds that guide their pursuit of community empowerment. Executive director Becky Twamley grew up being a pharmacist’s daughter, assembling educational materials for female patients as a child — and is now a pharmacist herself. Volunteer clinician Sue Hadland began volunteering as a nurse at Planned Parenthood 40 years ago, an experience leading her to become a women’s health nurse practitioner. Marketing director Julie Ingleman’s life as a single mother informed her passion for women’s economic freedom. Board member Cindy Moore advocates for youths in many ways and is the executive director of a teen center, The Shop.
It was at The Shop that educational efforts by WeARE got their start. Teens attend SxTalks, gatherings to encourage dialogue on sexual health topics. “The conversations filled an educational gap,” Twamley said, noting programming at nearby school districts focuses on abstinence.
WeARE The Clinic takes those ambitions to another level by not only offering guidance and providing answers, but also sexually transmitted diseases testing and treatment, pregnancy testing and counseling and a full slate of contraception options. All this, in Crow Wing county — the 15th most populous in Minnesota — where previously the closest option for confidential family planning care was a once-a-month clinic in the next county.
The women of WeARE are working to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs in a community in which both are prevalent at concerning rates among the teenage population.
Teenage birth rates exceed those at the state level, particularly among 18- to 19-year-olds, the University of Minnesota reported. In 2015, 53.7 births occurred per 1,000 within that age group in Crow Wing County, while the state rate was less than half that at 25.7 per 1,000.
Armed with telling statistics and unbridled enthusiasm, the women rallied community support to raise tens of thousands of dollars and collect more than 100 volunteers for the new clinic.
“I think what was most surprising was how many people supported our mission,” Twamley says. Individual donors raised the money to fund three-quarters of the clinic, with the last quarter of the funding coming from a grant.
While support came from unexpected places, so did pushback. Initial efforts to partner with county public health officials to offer services in the wake of Planned Parenthood’s closure did not come to fruition. While they sometimes face questions about whether the clinic performs abortions — which, although they do not, created difficulty in leasing space and seeking some local grants — Twamley said the most important goal is one most people can get behind: preventing unwanted pregnancies.
“Young people have a right and deserve this care,” explains Twamley.
Next up is a looking into a partnership with Central Lakes College in Brainerd, a community college serving 6,000 students without a health center. They will offer once-a-week counseling and clinics. Ingleman envisions creating a guidebook for other rural communities to succeed at establishing their own clinics.
“Our hope really is to change the community,” Ingleman says.