Alie Kriofske Mainella is all smiles as she dons her custom-made anatomy apron.
It’s a pretty safe bet that your job description doesn’t include duties such as “Carry around a box of wooden penises” or “Wash the penises so they can be reused.” Alie Kriofske Mainella’s does, and she couldn’t be happier about it.
Kriofske Mainella is the youth leadership specialist at IndependenceFirst, a South Side nonprofit that works with disabled adults and children to give them the skills needed for self-sufficiency. For the past eight years, she’s taught innovative classes that aim to help teenagers make informed choices when it comes to fostering healthy relationships, setting boundaries, dating and sexuality.
“When it comes to people with disabilities – specifically cognitive disabilities – one misconception is that the kids will become oversexed if we give them too much information,” says Kriofske Mainella, who lives with her husband and two children on Milwaukee’s West Side. “Either that, or they are infantilized by adults, who think they aren’t interested in the information.
“In fact,” says the 39-year-old, “people with disabilities have the same feelings as everyone else, the same need for connection.”
To make sure that need is met in a safe and healthy manner, Kriofske Mainella has adapted traditional sex-education lessons to the needs of her students.
“It all started one day in a girls’ support group when someone asked me where babies come from,” she recalls. “I said to myself, ‘OK, here goes,’ and I explained it the way I would to my kids” – the changes that happen in puberty, the production of eggs and sperm, how the male’s penis goes into the female’s body.
“You could feel the kids’ excitement,” she says. “They had never been talked to about these natural, human body occurrences.”
To develop her curriculum, Kriofske Mainella scoured the Internet for sex-ed information and began designing appropriate props. She made an apron with a uterus appliquéd on it to illustrate exactly where the uterus is, and one for the internal male organs and testicles. “I was talking to kids who had no concept of where these body parts are; the apron lies on the body in just the right spot.”
Since 2006, when there were no sexuality programs at IndependenceFirst, Kriofske Mainella has overseen the youth component as it has grown to include 20 classes (ranging from five to eight weeks long), three support groups and two youth leadership summits.
Terri Couwenhoven, a certified sex educator who works with people with disabilities, says these programs are long overdue. “When people with IDD [intellectual or developmental disabilities] lack information, they make mistakes and are vulnerable,” she says. “Exploitation occurs at much higher rates in this population. I learned a long time ago that knowledge is powerful.”
Kriofske Mainella takes that message to heart. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee English graduate, she’s now working on certification as a sexuality educator, and presents reports of her pioneering work at national conferences. In response to parent requests, she recently introduced classes to give them the tools and confidence to talk to their children about sexuality. Her classes for young people are in increasing demand by schools and community organizations throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
Kriofske Mainella says she has encountered surprisingly little pushback. One suburban school district would not let her teach sex ed but wanted her to teach a relationships class. Another insisted that she turn in a script of everything she planned say. Kriofske Mainella declined to teach there because she could not script her responses to student questions. A few parents have asked her to not use specific words, such as masturbation, penis or vagina. Kriofske Mainella explains that those words are an integral part of certain lessons, and the student should opt out if the parent chooses.
“Alie presents the material in a way that allows our students to grasp the main ideas regarding their bodies, dating, reproduction and healthy relationships,” says Christina Gagne, special education teacher at Shorewood High School. “They really feel comfortable asking her questions.”
Kriofske Mainella says she sometimes struggles to keep a straight face. “One question was, ‘Miss Alie, when I do that thing you have to do to make a baby, will I need a pump?’ ‘No,’ I said, and then repeated, slowly, what I had already explained about how intercourse occurs.”
Despite the challenges, Kriofske Mainella says she’s in love with her work. “I hope to do it for the rest of my life.” ■