Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 3
 
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
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HiTops: A Safe Haven for Teens, a Bustling Resource Center for All

Ellen Gilbert

“HiTops is not a Shoe Store,” declared the headline for the cover story of the most recent issue of the not-for-profit group’s newsletter, “The HiTops Guardian,” alluding to the popular sneakers. What it is is an organization that deals with adolescent health and sexuality.

Even that description doesn’t cut it, though. “We work with the whole young person: cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, and physically,” observed Executive Director Lori Heninger. HiTops (Health-Interested Teens’ Own Program on Sexuality) is a “lean, mean machine,” according to Dr. Heninger. It employs 15 full- and part-time people (including Spanish-speaking staff ), and offers a wide range of programs across the state. “We do a huge range of programming for anyone who loves and works with young people,” she said.

HiTops, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is unique to Princeton, though its constituency comes from well beyond the Princeton area. Its successes in offering both expert-and peer-led educational groups, providing wellness and preventive healthcare services, offering psychological support services, and designing training, consultation, and educational products, has led over 45 high schools in the state to adopt its practices.

“Young people come here and they trust us,” observed Dr. Henninger, quick to add that although some teens need and are grateful for the confidentiality offered, HiTops is happy to work as “partners with parents and schools” in sorting out problems having to do with sexual identity, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, smoking cessation, coping with bullying (in person and in cyberspace), and mental health.

Addressing the emotional well-being of teens is one of the areas Dr. Heninger would like to beef up in the future. “I’d love to have a mental health component here,” she said wistfully. Suicide is the third largest cause of death among teens (after homicides and accidents), and, she noted, “I’m not sure that the biggest problem is with kids. ‘Acting out’ — doing ‘bad things’ like drugs and alcohol — is indicative of much deeper problems. People today are so afraid of teenagers, and that’s a symptom of a much bigger societal problem that I think has to do with parents’ fear of taking responsibility for their actions.” Kids who are given everything, rather than earning it, she added, are actually at a disadvantage, since they don’t have confidence in their own ability to accomplish anything. “Parents are in a difficult position,” she added sympathetically. “They don’t know how to deal with things that are beyond their comprehension.”

Dr. Heninger would like New Jersey “to be the premier state for adolescent health care.” First, though, she said, health care professionals need to make a map of all the currently available services for adolescents in New Jersey to determine where the gaps are. The bottom line, though, is that she is sure “we can make a difference.”

Development and Marketing Director Julie Meyers is extremely grateful to the local community (“and not just parents”) for its support, not only in the form of monetary contributions, but as volunteers and participants on the HiTops’ Board and newly-created Advisory Council. Other financial support comes from private, public, and corporate foundations.

HiTops is located at 21 Wiggins Street in Princeton. Facilities include a Health Services Center and a second, larger building housing their Education Department and Administration. The Health Center, under the direction of Nurse-Practitioner Sandra Zordan-Friedman offers young people ages 14 through 26 services (at no cost, if they can’t afford it) that include pap smears, instruction on doing breast and testicular examinations, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and information about contraceptive use. The emphasis is on preventive practices, and the Center collaborates with, and makes referrals to, the broader medical community. Educational programs for youth, parents and guardians, and programs for parents and children together are offered in the adjacent Education and Administration building. HiTops’ website, which provides a comprehensive overview of its programs, is at www.hitops.org.

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