A Step Ahead Chattanooga is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to remove barriers to contraception through education, outreach, and access to free birth control. They serve an 18 region county: 11 counties in Southeast Tennessee, five counties in Georgia, and two in Alabama.
Mandy Cowley, executive director of A Step Ahead Chattanooga, says their outreach is done by going out into the community, and building trust and awareness of who they are. Through education, they believe everyone has the right to know how their bodies work, and having that information allows them to make the right decision for themselves concerning contraception.
A Step Ahead does not deliver services to free birth control directly. They work with partner clinics, medical clinics, and medical providers in the region.
But, how does that work? Mandy says someone needing access to free birth control will contact them, the non-profit then gets some information from the caller through an intake line with highly trained volunteers. Based on that information, and where they are in the region, A Step Ahead finds the best clinic for them. Mandy says the only qualifications for their services are that you must live or go to school in one of the 18 counties they reach. They do not care about insurance status or your income. After they find a clinic that best fits you, they connect you directly to that clinic partner, during your phone conversation with A Step Ahead. The medical provider will then take over to schedule an appointment to get you access to free birth control. At your appointment, they may conduct a pap smear, testing, and general health assessments. Again, A Step Ahead covers anything related to that visit that isn't covered by other means. Mandy says even if you have insurance, they will pay the co-pay or deductibles. If you do not have insurance, they will pay for everything related to the visit, meaning it's totally free. In addition to helping someone access free birth control, they also mail free condoms and other things that help connect people.
According to Mandy, sometimes 20-year-olds are still on their parent's insurance, and they do not want them to know they are getting free birth control, or sometimes a person in a domestic violence situation and they do not want their partner to know she is seeking birth control. Mandy says there are a number of reasons sometimes people who do have insurance are not able to access a contraception method that is right for them, and they are able to help.
Education is also a core component of A Step Ahead's mission. Right now, they have six health educators on staff, including two part-time bilingual health educators. The educators will do presentations throughout the region, which includes family planning with couples, working with churches, and after-school sex education. Tennessee only teaches abstinence in schools, so kids will have questions and turn to the internet for answers. Mandy says that A Step Ahead would rather provide them with a trusted source with accurate information. She says they work with partner agencies who invite them in, and parents are given information about what sex education is, and they can choose to participate or not. A Step Ahead also focuses a lot on education for parents and guardians. This is for when the parent wants to have that conversation with the children in their lives, but are unsure where to begin, what the information is now, or what their kids are exposed to. So, a presentation is given on how to have those tough talks with kids, so as a parent or guardian they feel equipped to have that conversation on their own.
A Step Ahead is also focused on breaking barriers. As mentioned, they have two bilingual educators apart of their team. Mandy says they are currently working on adapting a curriculum that will be predominantly in Spanish and culturally relevant to the Latinx community. She says they know everyone has a different connection to the healthcare system, so being able to meet people where they are, and give them the information will help remove those barriers. Mandy says this was really a byproduct of listening to the community and trying to meet that need.
A Step Ahead Chattanooga does have volunteer opportunities with their appointment line. Those who sign up will go through training, and the shifts are just four hours and run from 9 AM-5 PM. The non-profit does welcome donations to support their work since all of their services are at zero cost.
If you would like to learn more about different contraception methods, you can find that in our interview at the bottom of the page, along with their social media pages, or if you would like to check out A Step Ahead Chattanooga's website, click here.
(Note: There are six A Step Ahead's around the state of Tennessee so if someone you know needs access to free birth control in Tennessee, or if you move out of the region, they are also avaliable elsewhere.)
My name is Jess and I love telling other peoples stories and bringing awareness to the community.