A 14-year-old Boston terrier, 6-year-old golden retriever and 9-year-old labradoodle are among a dozen therapy dogs prancing around groups of students who have gathered on the university quad at UNC Asheville for a little puppy love. This therapy dog event planned by PEPAH, or Peers Educating Peers and Advancing Health, brings this group of furry four-legged friends to campus once a month, offering a time for students to connect with each other, play with dogs of all ages and breeds and relieve stress.
By planning a variety of events similar to this one, PEPAH, a student-led organization that is partnered with the university’s Health and Counseling Center, seeks to educate and inspire students to take charge of their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, social and sexual health. They also advocate for making healthy lifestyle choices by providing resources that promote a safe learning environment and connect students so they can empower each other.
Aside from bringing therapy dogs to campus, PEPAH is responsible for many popular campus outreach events that tackle a wide variety of health issues; health issues that students wouldn’t otherwise discuss or even be aware of. One of their most popular events is The Grey Area, an gathering that brings students together to talk about the importance of consent. During this event students are able to discuss the grey area between healthy, consensual sex and sexual assault and rape.
PEPAH is also in charge of the spring event Talk With a Sexologist. During this event, students are able to anonymously submit questions about their intimate relationships and have them answered by a professional sexologist. While this event educates students about maintaining healthy sexual relationships, it also opens up healthy communication about sex, something that students tend to shy away from.
Aside from their larger outreach events, PEPAH also conducts smaller tabling events. They often set up a table in front of the university dining hall and hand out free information pamphlets to students that pass by.
Organized in 2005, PEPAH began as PAWS, or Peers Advocating Wellness Strategies. It wasn’t until 2013 that the name was changed to PEPAH and the group transitioned from a student organization on campus to a student organization within the Health and Counseling Center. For the students involved with PEPAH, this means they are not required to write proposals or apply for funding through SAIL like other student organizations. Instead, they receive all of their funding from the Health and Counseling Center, giving them more access to resources.
PEPAH also has a full time staff member, Kenda Mullert, the health promotion coordinator at the Health and Counseling Center. Mullert has been leading the group since 2015 and focuses on establishing and maintaining structure within the organization while allowing it to remain student-focused and student-led.
“I want to give students the opportunity to own the health on our campus,” Mullert said.
Even with Mullert working to oversee all of the organization’s operations, PEPAH remains student-led because it is structured into three levels of involvement: PEPAH crew, PEPAH interns and PEPAH intern leaders.
PEPAH crew is comprised of students that work with the Health and Counseling Center and attend the tabling and outreach events organized by the PEPAH interns and intern leaders. Once a crew member has worked seven hours, they are given an official t-shirt and are invited to join the PEPAH intern meetings.
Grace King, a health and wellness promotion major at UNC Asheville and the crew coordinator of PEPAH, acts as the “middle man” between the crew and the interns by attending weekly intern meetings and passing on information to the crew about upcoming events.
PEPAH interns are certified peer educators that are organized into three focus groups: sexual awareness and healthy relationships, alcohol and substance abuse prevention and mental health awareness. Each group organizes tabling and outreach events on campus that connect peers and educate them on the different facets of health.
Justine Lockhart, a psychology major at UNC Asheville, is an intern in the mental health awareness focus group.
“I am very interested in mental health because I want to go into clinical psychology, Lockhart said. “By working with PEPAH I am educating others but also educating myself.”
Each focus group is lead by an intern leader. All intern leaders have completed PEPAH crew and a PEPAH internship and are recruited based off their commitment to PEPAH. Intern leaders are responsible for planning and executing outreach programs, working one-on-one with Health and Counseling Center staff and recruiting new members.
To become involved with PEPAH, students can apply to become a member of the crew at any point during the school year. Applications to become an intern are only available during early spring. More information regarding PEPAH can be found on the university’s Health and Counseling Center website.