Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 44
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
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Devoted to Total Adolescent Wellness, HiTOPS Is “Poised to Grow and Poised to Serve More”

Ellen Gilbert

The lead story in the most recent issue of the HiTOPS Guardian, the non-profit organization’s newsletter, was called “Healthcare in Motion,” and it’s easy to see why.

Evidence of the organization’s commitment to total adolescent wellness as well as its sense of responsibility to the Princeton community was made clear recently by its willingness to voluntarily administer the H1N1 vaccine to local residents. HiTOPS professional nurses staffed Princeton-based public immunization sites, in addition to offering free H1N1 immunizations at the organization’s Wiggins Street location.

“We see kids as whole people,” observed Executive Director Elizabeth Casparian in a recent interview. The popular impression that HiTOPS exists simply to disseminate information about sexual health is completely erroneous, she observed. “We’re often the only medical care a young person gets.” In addition to inoculations, HTOPS staff monitor youngsters with high blood pressure, identify those with stress-related and eating disorders, give them referrals, and offer “I Quit” programs to enable smokers to give up cigarettes.

A paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, subsequently published in the association’s journal, lauded the remarkable success of the “I Quit” program. This success, Ms. Casparian said, is largely based on HiTOPS’s employment of popular technology used by young people. Podcasts disseminate important information, which is reinforced in follow-up text messages. Incentives like new IPods and gift certificates help adolescent smokers make it to the finish line.

Unfortunately, Ms. Casparian reported, funding for the program has “disappeared. But we know the process now,” she added, and HiTOPS is busy looking for other ways to utilize technology.

Along with disappearing funds from public and private sources, HiTOPs is now dealing with the fact that many of their clients cannot pay for services. “We never turn anyone away for inability to pay,” noted Ms. Casparian, and that includes, of course, a relatively new constituency: youngsters from Princeton who find themselves with less money.

Reminders of a difficult economy make Ms. Casparian impatient. “We are poised to grow and poised to serve more,” she said. “It frustrates me that people say ‘oh, now is a bad time.’ The kids don’t care; they need the services now.” One of the reasons HiTOPS is struggling, she believes, is because “the things we know are the right things to do aren’t the easiest things to fund.”

Pointing to the public’s fear of congregating teenagers, she noted that residents living adjacent to HiTOPs’s Wiggins Street headquarters have actually made unsolicited donations to the organization. “We have kids here early in the morning to late at night, but our neighbors have become donors because of the kids’ exemplary behavior.”

The Wiggins Street space isn’t large enough, however, and Ms. Casparian dreams of something more substantial. “I would like a teen center to be part of my legacy to this community,” she said. “Friday afternoons are rough. There’s no tutoring, and after 3 p.m. is when kids really get into trouble. They need someplace to be.”

“We’re here,” she said, noting the workshops on “mean girls” and bullying, and harassment-prevention programs offered by HiTOPS to area middle and high schools. “We’re meeting the needs of many of the children in this community.”

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