University of Vermont

Class of ‘17’s Shear and Cipri Develop Confidential Sexual Health Texting Service for LGBTQ Youth

Schweitzer Fellows and University of Vermont class of 2017 medical students Matthew Shear and Leah Cipri
Schweitzer Fellows and University of Vermont class of 2017 medical students Matthew Shear and Leah Cipri

Schweitzer Fellows and University of Vermont medical students Leah Cipri and Matthew Shear are partnering with Outright Vermont to empower LGBTQ+ youth throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and upstate New York to start getting "sassy" about their sexual health.

LGBTQ youth can now get answers to their questions by texting 724-888-SASS (7277).

With support from Outright and Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, Shear and Cipri founded the dedicated texting helpline so youth ages 13 to 22 could get questions answered accurately and safely about their sexual health.  The two students created the texting helpline in response to the 2013 VT Youth Risk Behavior Survey. "We looked at the data and it was overwhelming. It showed gay, lesbian, and bisexual identified youth in Vermont are much more likely to report engaging in riskier behavior,” Cipri says.

"724-888-SASS is safe, confidential, and provides medically accurate information," adds Shear. "The Internet is full of misinformation, and Google shouldn't be the first place youth turn to for questions about their sexual health.”

Shear and Cipri both have experience in health education and counseling. Prior to starting medical school, Shear served as a health educator while a student at Brandeis University, and Cipri has a background in social services and worked for several years at Burlington’s Spectrum Youth Center. The two students recruited a team of local physicians and experts, including faculty at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who specialize in pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry, to review and answer the more challenging texts.

“We have a real partnership on this project,” says Shear, who explains that he and Cipri collaborate to polish every text response. In addition, they have an “on-call schedule” where they take turns answering texts, referring any more complex questions to their stable of expert clinicians.

“Making sex education classes more LGBTQ+ friendly is a priority that the youth set for themselves,” says Micah Barritt, director of programs at Outright Vermont. “Outright created the SASS Academy in 2007, which originated as a workshop series. The text line now makes SASS accessible to youth throughout the state.”

“The fact is LGBTQ+ youth are at a disproportionately higher risk for adverse health outcomes,” says Shear. “The mission of the SASS program and the texting hotline is simple: to empower youth by giving them both the agency and the knowledge to make informed choices about their sexual, mental, and emotional health.”

 Youth can text SASS 24 hours a day and drop in at Outright Vermont's main location in Burlington on select Fridays for workshops focused on LGBTQ+ health. Check outrightvt.org for the schedule and upcoming topics, or text your questions to 724-888-7277 anytime. Interested youth can follow the SASSiness on tumblr (outrightvtzone), and Facebook.

 (Matthew Shear and Leah Cipri contributed to this article.)