Photo by Olivia Ross
By Cassandra Castillo, Assistant Features Editor—
The local nonprofit, A Step Ahead Chattanooga, serves as a prevention-only organization that provides free birth control services and a sex education curriculum to people located in the 18 counties they serve across northwest Georgia, northeast Alabama, and southeastern Tennessee.
The organization began in Memphis, but has expanded to several entities across the state of Tennessee. Each organization does things differently, but they all share a common belief that “every woman should be able to plan if or when she wants to start a family.”
Michelle Dunn-Loveless works as A Step Ahead’s education and outreach manager.
“It’s offered to anybody in the community that [lives or goes to school within our service area],” Dunn-Loveless said. “North Georgia and all 11 southeast counties in Tennessee get education services for free and birth control services for free.”
Their demographics show that women in their mid-twenties to early thirties have benefited most from the organization, followed by women ages 18 to early twenties; college students take up about 33% of clients.
According to Dunn-Loveless, the benefits of birth control other than pregnancy prevention also include spacing out births and helping manage acne, as well as painful or heavy menstruation cycles. It also helps manage health conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis.
When clients call a Step Ahead to make an appointment, they are answered by a volunteer who collects their information. A Step Ahead then transfers the call to their partner clinic in the area that will provide the requested service. They also provide rides to appointments at no cost to the client.
“We cover the first consultation, the health screening, [the IUD device or implant], and then the removal three, six, ten years down the road depending on what they get,” Dunn-Loveless said. “We don’t actually see clients in the office— we’re at home now—but we never see clients face-to-face. The clients go directly to the clinic and then we reimburse the health clinics, so clients don’t pay anything out of pocket.”
Marketing and Communication Manager Brooke Dillard explained that most of the funding comes from private donors. They also receive foundation grants and recently received state funding for the first time.
Three regional health educators were hired after the Tennessee grant was given. Their purpose is to educate people in rural areas on birth control and women’s health. Each educator works in a separate region of the southeast counties.
Prior to COVID, A Step Ahead recruited people ages 16 and up to be part of their outreach program. Many students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have been a part of the program, as well as a couple of high school students. Applicants filled out a short bio of themselves and answered questions as to why they want to work with a Step Ahead, followed by why they are interested in birth control and women’s reproductive health.
Outreach members attend orientation, where the history and work of the organization is discussed. They table events in the community to share their knowledge on women’s health and all forms of birth control. They are essentially community ambassadors, letting people know that these services are free and easily accessible to the public.
There is also a Contraceptive Access Advisory committee, made up of constituents in particular pockets of the community that advise the outreach and education efforts on the best ways to reach those particular sectors. They can then focus on how to address the misconceptions that people in that area may have.
“People might say ‘no I’m not interested,’ but I always try to return that with with ‘well maybe you’re not interested in it, but this is a free resource in our community and you can take that resource and share it with somebody else who may need it,’” Dunn-Loveless said.
“A lot of the time, people may not understand until we explain to them that we are a prevention base program, so the things that we’re doing are here to help prevent unintended pregnancy,” Dillard said. “We have nothing to do with any sort of stance on anything, but we’re just here to help people with prevention and understanding about sexual education. We give them the tools and resources if they need to be knowledgeable about their own preventions.”
A Step Ahead is constantly accepting appointment line volunteers and community ambassadors. Although the outreach process is uncertain at this time, they look to hire new members each year.
To donate, volunteer, or to receive more information their website can be found here.