CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Jordan Bean didn't realize how much her campus community needed her until her organization was handing out free condoms to students to promote safe sex.
"So many people rejected us. They acted grossed out. They didn't want to talk about it at all," she said. "Meanwhile, West Virginia has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. I didn't understand why people were offended by being offered something that helps keep their bodies safe.
"That's when I found out exactly just how far behind we were on these issues."
Bean, a senior at Marshall University, recently established the first Vox group in West Virginia. Vox, a college-based organization sponsored by Planned Parenthood, allows students across the country to organize events to raise public awareness about reproductive rights and sexual health.
West Virginia is one of only about 10 states that does not have an active Vox organization, according to Planned Parenthood's website.
Marshall University's branch, made up of about 20 students, has extended its mission to encourage conversations about equality and the acceptance of different lifestyles and decisions, Bean said.
Last semester, Vox hosted a voter registration rally to encourage more students to be socially active. On the anniversary of his death in October, the group took a vow of silence for one day to honor Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man whose murder in the late 1990s became the center of hate crime legislation.
The group posted questions like, "What are you afraid of?" and "Where is your faith base?" across campus to engage students on the issues of sexuality, Bean said.
"With that event, our purpose was to give people a voice, and that's really the point of all of this. Speak up and be respectful of everyone else that does, too. You can feel however you want about whatever you want. It's more about being kind," she said. "It doesn't matter how you affiliate yourself with a church or a political party -- that's not our message.
"You don't have to feel one way or another about these things, you just have to respect everyone's personal decision no matter what it is," she said.
While the primary goal of Vox is to support pro-choice students across the country, Bean doesn't see it that way.
"The terms pro-choice and pro-life are outdated, and the conversation is too complicated for that. It doesn't make sense to label yourself that way. You don't have to put yourself in a box -- it's more personal than that," she said. "Abortion does come up, but we don't typically talk about it specifically. It's more about being open and honest and encouraging people to do whatever makes them comfortable."
Still, the Vox mission hasn't been an easy one on a West Virginia college campus, said Bean, who grew up in Huntington.
"In a very conservative area, it's definitely discouraging and frustrating at times. We get a lot of backlash on campus, and people approach us with questions that are hard to answer. But that's also a motivator," she said. "I think it's strange that we don't have more groups like this because these are really important subjects. I've always been confused by that, but it shows us how badly we still need to work on things around here.
"All we want is to create a safe place in Huntington and to start some conversations."
For more information, visit the group's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/VoxatMarshall.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.