SPOTLIGHT | February 25, 2022

Teens Helping Teens Get Vaxxed

Double dutching. Dancing. Free food. TikTok videos.

A graduation-themed event for high school seniors in Philadelphia last May included all of that – and it left two teenagers, Makayla Coleman and Keren Abraham, smiling and reminiscing about what it meant to be there as youth vaccine ambassadors.

Through Philly Teen Vaxx, Coleman and Abraham have worked with more than 30 other teen ambassadors, along with medical experts and staff from their school district, to host a series of events since the program started in April 2021.

“It’s giving communities and people that outlet to reconnect,” explained Coleman, a 16-year-old junior at the George Washington High School of Engineering and Science. “They are also getting the vaccine.”

Abraham, an 18-year-old senior at the Philadelphia Academy Charter High School, said their role as ambassadors has been strictly to educate. “We are not a group that’s going to enforce or impose anything on anyone,” she said.

Abraham and Coleman explained that through events like the “Vaxx-It-Ball” clinic and “Back to School JAM,” students get together, laugh, and have fun. “It’s just like it was before COVID-19,” Coleman said.

Students come together to play volleyball, chess, and checkers. They eat water ice and soft pretzels, listen to music, hang out with friends – and, if they want, get vaccinated. If they have questions about vaccines and COVID-19, they just ask the teen ambassadors.

“Getting out in the community has been their success,” said Sophia Collins, M.S.N., R.N., a clinical nurse project manager in the policy lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Philly Teen Vaxx co-founder. “Everything from the logo to the slogan, ‘We get the FAXX so you can get the VAXX,’ is all about making it catchy and appealing to other teens. It all comes from their voice.”

Coleman and Abraham explain that in some cases, teens aren’t ready to get vaccinated but ask questions about the rumors they’ve heard. “You’re not going to turn purple,” Coleman laughingly recalled telling one teenager. “And it’s not going to give you superpowers.”

Other students want details: What’s in the vaccines? Can they trust them? How will   
they feel after getting one?

Some even ask about new variants that may be on the way. In many cases, the teens provide their peers with reassurance and then walk them to a vaccine clinic at school or close by.

“Information needed to be brought to the community in a genuine, unique, and real way,” Coleman explained. “I saw the need for people to get vaccinated. And I saw all the distrust.”

Abraham agreed. “There was a lot of fear,” she said.

The timing of becoming a vaccine ambassador was also critical, they explained. As teens quarantined for a year, they no longer talked to friends or classmates in person. This also meant they couldn’t ask friends about what they saw online. “You’re stuck where you are,” Abraham explained. “You just think about it.”

And talking to parents was not always easy for some, as parents themselves had differing – and sometimes misinformed – views, based on their religion or maybe mistrust of the medical system.

Social media, then, quickly became a main outlet for information.  It also became a place where many COVID-19 myths spread.

This is one reason the group began using TikTok and Instagram to share facts about the vaccine.

They met regularly with their expert advisors, including Collins from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dianna Coleman from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and Barbara Klock, M.D., from the School District of Philadelphia, to learn about and stay up to date on vaccine science. They also used the city’s public health website to answer questions and create a variety of educational materials.

Now, whether it is because of that outreach, the social media posts and connections, casual chats in the school hallway, or events where they bonded with friends – and friends of friends – the teens are trusted messengers.

“Studies have shown that adolescents are more influenced by peers than by parents and other adults. Peers play a pivotal role in decision-making. Utilizing peers as messengers is the most important strategy that we have to communicate with adolescents.”

Terri Lipman, Ph.D., C.R.N.P.

Assistant dean for community engagement at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a pediatric nurse practitioner

“Studies have shown that adolescents are more influenced by peers than by parents and other adults. Peers play a pivotal role in decision-making,” said Terri Lipman, Ph.D., C.R.N.P., the assistant dean for community engagement at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a pediatric nurse practitioner. “Utilizing peers as messengers is the most important strategy that we have to communicate with adolescents.”

Lipman explained that while peers are most important, doctors, nurses, parents, and grandparents can also be influential sources of COVID-19 information for teens. This is based on a survey that was conducted by University of Pennsylvania mentors and high school vaccine ambassadors with 150 local teens. The survey also found that safety, especially for their older relatives, was a big motivator for getting vaccinated. So was the desire to return to normal activities, like sports. The feedback is now being used to design educational materials and guide the ongoing outreach.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Coleman said about the events that have enabled her and other students to connect – especially after a year of heartache and struggle for so many families. Both she and Abraham agree that seeing their community come together has been a rewarding experience.

Their advice for other teens? “Don’t be afraid to take charge,” Coleman shared.

To learn more about Philly CEAL, visit PhillyCEAL.org.

Related Resources:

Philadelphia CEAL researchers will soon introduce “Vax Up, Philly Families,” a program created to help parents and caregivers connect with each other about COVID-19.