Spotlight on... Mary Jane Cassalia, CDPHE Youth Health Specialist

Spotlight on... Mary Jane Cassalia, CDPHE Youth Health Specialist

This month we want to take the time to spotlight the great work of one of Mary Jane Cassalia, Youth Health Specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), who has done a great job leading statewide efforts improving the quality and accessibility of sexual health services for young people in Colorado. Read on to find out more about Mary Jane and how you can get involved with the great work she is doing.

Briefly describe your background and how you got to your current position as Youth Health Specialist at CDPHE.

Sexual health has been a passion of mine since college and I have been fortunate to be able to follow this passion into a career. I began at a non-profit women’s clinic in Boulder, which led to graduate school and various internships, research and evaluation related to prevention and then my current role at CDPHE. Overall I am pursuing a career that will positively affect the health sector from multiple approaches, while continually partnering with direct services. I am motivated to help Coloradans make healthy choices and lead healthy lives. I am hoping that my work will help increase not only access to healthcare, but attitudes about it as well. Being at CDPHE and part of the group of talented and dedicated group of folks working to improve youth sexual health has been a highlight of my career thus far. As I embark on the next phase of my career (nursing), I look forward to seeing where my passions take me!

What are some of the biggest accomplishments you’ve seen in Colorado’s youth sexual health field during your time at CDPHE so far?

  • CDPHE published Youth Sexual Health in Colorado: A Call to Action, Colorado’s effort to address youth sexual health as a holistic issue in young people’s lives beyond preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The Call to Action provides strategies at the policy level, community level and family/peer level to improve the sexual health of individuals:
    • Reducing rates of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV
    • Reducing rates of unintended teen pregnancy;
    • Decreasing the incidence of sexual assault and dating violence
    • Increasing participation by youth in educational and career opportunities
  • The Call to Action recommends partnering with young people to develop, implement and evaluate community actions and strategies. Research demonstrates the value of this kind of collaboration to young people, adults and community organizations. This document and the frame that it uses to address the issue continues to be used throughout CDPHE and is a model for how to view and address youth sexual health as a holistic issue.

lo mj cta

Pictured: Lisa Olcese and Mary Jane Cassalia reviewing the Call to Action

  • CDPHE partnered with Colorado Youth Matter to train facilitators across Colorado in Colorado Youth Matter’s Playground to Prom workshop. This workshop increases parents’ and guardians’ confidence and abilities to communicate with their child regarding health, sexuality, and relationships. I’m happy that we were able to support adults in this topic and we fully support Colorado Youth Matter’s continued trainings for adults across the state.
  • CDPHE hired two youth advisors in 2013, one of who was focused on youth sexual health. Lesley Del Rio added so much to our work by conducting trainings for adults, presenting on concepts from the Call to Action and giving valuable insight into programs and initiatives supporting youth sexual health. We are so proud to have worked with her and want to congratulate her on her recent national Healthy Teen Network Outstanding Teen Parent Award!

What are some areas for improvement in the youth sexual health field that community-based organizations that you would recommend organizations and advocates focus on?

I would like to see continued training and support for “askable adults,” adults who young people see as approachable, trusted, knowledgeable and supportive. It’s so important for adults to support youth in their decision making and research shows that the engagement of “askable adults” significantly increases the protective factors for youth. According to the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, young people in Colorado that could ask a parent or guardian for help were less likely to:

  • Have ever engaged in sexual intercourse (29.2% vs. 43.2%)
  • Have had sex before age 13 (2.3% vs. 6.6%)
  • Have had sex with four or more people in their lifetime (7.2% vs. 15.3%)
  • Have used alcohol or drugs during last sexual intercourse (20.0% vs. 30.0%).

And more likely to:

  • Have used a condom during last intercourse (65.4% vs. 57.1%)
  • Have used an effective method of birth control to prevent pregnancy during last intercourse (e.g. birth control pills, IUD, implant, patch or birth control ring) (34.5% vs. 27.4%)

How can people get involved with and stay up-to-date with the great work happening at CDPHE to promote youth health and well-being?

Colorado9to25 is where a lot of CDPHE’s great work is happening. People can get involved with this youth-systems building effort through the newsletter, attending events or joining an Action Team. The CO9to25 Youth Summit is coming up on October 24th so please attend and share the information with youth and adults that you know! Additionally, CDPHE continues to support youth sexual health through its Family Planning Program and STI/HIV branch. Stay connected to this great work through Beforeplay.org and the STI/HIV newsletter and blog.