Every month, Chattanooga Moms will be bringing you a new series featuring non-profits led by women in the Chattanooga area written by guest blogger Alexi.
Did you know that seven out of ten women will experience an unintended pregnancy during their 20s? A Step Ahead Chattanooga (ASAC) is working hard to lower that number. Since 2014, ASAC has provided free, long term birth control solutions to thousands of women who live or attend school in the Tennessee Valley. A Step Ahead Chattanooga’s Executive Director, Susan Vandergriff, is on a mission to help women make informed, safe decisions in planning their careers and relationships.
Mom on a Mission: Susan Vandergriff
Executive Director of A Step Ahead Chattanooga
Mom to six, who came to her biologically, through adoption and by marriage.
Her children range in age from 21-10 years old.
Mission: Provide free long term effective birth control and quality sex education courses to our community.
But Susan wasn’t always a women’s health advocate. She started out with an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and spent 17 years building a career in the banking industry until her life took an unexpected turn. After years of primary and secondary infertility, she and her then husband decided to grow their family through international adoption. Her experiences visiting Ethiopia led to a radical change of perspective:
“Traveling out of the country for the first time opened my eyes to the need for poverty and orphan prevention. Why are we just putting bandaids on problems when we can prevent them from ever happening?”
Susan was inspired to get her Master’s in Human Services and Counseling, with an eye toward social work. In 2015, while job hunting, she saw a posting for an organization she had never heard of called A Step Ahead. Even though she wasn’t looking for a part-time position, she was inspired by the simplicity of their mission to provide free long-term, reversible birth control to any woman living in Southeast Tennessee who wants it. Over the last five years she has worked her way up the ladder from part-time office manager to her current post as Executive Director.
The irony of being infertile and an adoptive mom advocating for women to prevent pregnancies isn’t lost on Susan. But to her, it’s two sides of the same problem.
“In my mind it’s all the same thing…If I want to have a baby, I need to be able to have access to whatever I need to help me. It makes me mad that insurance doesn’t cover fertility treatments. On the flip side, if I don’t want to have a baby, I need to have the education and resources to make that happen.”
Education is an important piece of ASAC’s mission as well, filling the gaps left by Tennessee’s abstinence only sex-ed programs.
“This summer…we were able to deliver a comprehensive sex education curriculum ‘The Power Through Choices’ to 125 youth here in Chattanooga. It was a comprehensive, trauma informed, LGBTQ inclusive curriculum.”
The goal is to change the conversation around sex and birth control to one of prevention and health care, because birth control is about so much more than fertility. It can balance hormones, regulate periods, minimize adverse symptoms of periods such as cramps and PMS, manage pain from endometriosis, and has been linked to reduced occurrence of ovarian and uterine cancers. Additionally, the use of long term birth control has been proven to reduce the number of unintentional pregnancies, allowing women to have more control over their family and career planning and lowering the abortion rates.
Organizations like ASAC are filling major gaps left by our healthcare and insurance systems. Especially in the time of Covid, when people might unexpectedly find themselves unemployed or working part-time without benefits. Unfortunately, the pandemic has had a major effect on the health care facilities and doctors who partner with ASAC. Pre-Covid the wait for an appointment to see a doctor with ASAC for a long term reversible contraceptive was roughly two weeks; now the wait is upwards of two months.
“There was an interesting study in Guttmacher that 1-3 women are having problems accessing contraceptives. Right now, all four Chattanooga Health Department locations are not doing IUD or implant surgeries because their resources are devoted to Covid now…Now not only can we not send women to the Health Department, but women who are calling the Health Department on their own are being referred back to us and we’re having to find another provider for them.”
In the interim, the Health Department is providing short term solutions, including Depo shots and the pill, while ASAC is going so far as mailing condoms to their clients to make sure no one is left unprotected.
Susan Vandergriff is a mom on a mission to provide free long-term birth control and comprehensive sex education to our community. Want to come alongside her, while maintaining an appropriate social distance? An easy way to support her work is simply to help spread the word about this amazing organization. Like their Facebook page and follow their Instagram.
For a more hands on experience, try answering the client appointment line from the comfort of your home. Volunteers will be provided training and a script to follow as they answer the ASAC’s scheduling line redirected to their personal phone line. Financial support is an important way to keep ASAC doing their important work. For more information on how to contribute, visit the ASAC website and click the Donate Now button.
Alexi Ruth Engesath is a mom to three rambunctious girls (13, 10 & 3) and two pups with her husband Adam. When she isn’t wrangling her humans, she enjoys reading British absurdist humor, obsessively watching Hamilton on Disney+, and large quantities of caffeine. Alexi Ruth is passionate about the Foster/Adoptive community, social justice, and supporting the work of local nonprofits.