Asian Counseling & Referral Service, one of 13 nonprofits benefiting from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, offers a Teen Peer Advocate program to help young women, particularly those who are Asian Pacific American, recognize the differences between healthy and unhealthy dating relationships.

Share story

Jelina Nguyen and Helena Nguyen confidently walk the halls of Garfield High School, knowing the respect that they and other girls their age deserve from the boys they date.

The two classmates have undergone tens of hours of training from Asian Counseling & Referral Service (ACRS) to educate their peers on the differences between healthy and unhealthy dating relationships, as well as how to thwart sexual assault and domestic violence.

Jelina and Helena, who are not related, are among more than 150 teen peer advocates that ACRS has trained since launching the program in 1999. ACRS is one of 13 nonprofit organizations benefiting this year from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

“I have confidence in who I am and where I am going,” said Jelina, a 17-year-old senior. “I know what to expect from a relationship — what I want, and what I want to give.”

The peer advocates take what they have learned to other high schools and to youth groups, health fairs and even colleges, using a large prop to illustrate the danger signs of dating violence. The colorful “Power Control Wheel” lays out cues for recognizing emotional and physical abuse, such as when a boyfriend says something like, “Don’t make me slap you!” or “If you love me, you’ll do it.”

Currently, there are 26 ACRS peer advocates attending four high schools: Garfield and Franklin in Seattle, and Interlake and Sammamish on the Eastside.

In addition, there is an after-school empowerment group at each campus where young women can confide in each other. An ACRS youth counselor runs each empowerment group, with the teen advocates providing support for any and all classmates who seek it.

“One of the best things I’ve learned to do is to listen,” said Helena, also a 17-year-old senior.

Dating boundaries can be blurry — and support elusive — for some young Asian Pacific American women, particularly daughters of immigrants. Those girls have been raised in cultural traditions where teen dating is considered taboo and discussion of it is forbidden.

“That means that those who do date are sneaking around behind their parents’ backs,” said Leana Pastores, an ACRS youth counselor who oversees the empowerment groups at Garfield and Franklin.

“They often don’t know what is expected of them, or by them. So it’s important that they have their peers to turn to for support because they definitely aren’t going to turn to their parents, and possibly not even their older siblings.”

Pastores, who earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington, was a peer advocate as a student at Franklin.

“There is so much drama in the lives of girls this age,” she said. “It’s great for them to have a group where everyone becomes your sister.”

In 10 years, the Teen Peer Advocate program is following a natural progression of growth that feels as comfortable as family:

When Pastores was a Franklin student, her ACRS youth counselor was Souchinda Viradet Khampradith, now her boss as an ACRS clinical supervisor. Helena was encouraged to become a peer advocate by her older sister, Helen, who had gone through the same program, with Pastores also as her youth counselor. And Helena recruited Jelina.

“If you empower one girl, then that girl empowers another,” Jelina said. “It’s a chain reaction. We’re starting a revolution.”

Or, as Khampradith sees it: “We are developing confident young ladies. And that confidence will take them far in life.”