Before she worked for Planned Parenthood, Kelly Novak was a patient. In fact, after her very first visit to a clinic, she knew she was destined to be a part of this organization: "In the rear-view mirror I saw the logo on the side of the building. I decided right then and there that I was gonna work for Planned Parenthood because this is how people should be treated."
The atmosphere surrounding her job and the organization's place in state and national politics has grown increasingly contentious in recent years, but Novak is more determined than ever.
"What I hope to see is the continued destigmatization of all things sexual and reproductive health," she says. "It is ridiculous the vast difference in language, in protocol, in ethos around everything sexual and reproductive health [compared to other areas of health]." This means working across all areas of life for the patients and all areas of Ohio, and beyond. What does that mean in practical terms?
In her time working with Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, Novak has led the department through myriad educational programs throughout 68 of Ohio's 88 counties. That involves a dozen currently active programs including providing free HIV testing, STI education, birth control information, as well as programs like PREP (Personal Responsibility and Education Program) and Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies, which works to address the high infant mortality rate in Ohio by aiding pregnant women and new mothers in their travels through various stages of motherhood.
It all started with a grant making her department the exclusive provider of comprehensive sex education for the Cleveland school district. It included STI and birth control information, as well as education on healthy relationships and consent. Training peer health educators at high schools in Cleveland and other cities across Ohio is another aspect of Novak's work, placing the students themselves in the role of educator.
Novak remembers one woman in particular, when asked about her favorite experiences on the job. The woman had just left a rehab facility and was working to stay clean.
"She was so young and she had been through a lot — more than most of us will go through in a life," Novak says. "She just looked at me and said, 'This was the only place I knew I could come and be honest about my life and not be judged.' I think about her every single day."
The memories are proud even in moments of great distress. The state of Ohio recently voted to defund Planned Parenthood across the state — the organization is currently in the middle of a lawsuit against the action — and Novak had a moment when she saw all of the services the organization provides listed in the official complaint. It struck her: "Just seeing one after the other, after the other, it was a great moment to step back and say, 'Wow. This is really what we do. We really serve all these tens of thousands of people.'"
Sexual health isn't the only topic on which Novak is educating the community; she's also a certified yoga instructor.
With several regular classes each week, she's been teaching in Cleveland for more than six years: "I have a couple regular gigs; it keeps me sane and accountable," she says. She recently collaborated with an organization called ZenWorks Yoga that works to host yoga and mindfulness exercises for underserved children and families; they seek out yoga teachers from the area and host donation-based sessions in order to raise money and get the community involved.
"My grandma asked me one day, sort of bewildered, 'How do these two things relate to each other?'" Novak says. "Both tie to my core belief that we should all be in charge of ourselves and we should all be a whole person. Both of these aspects of my life address that in different ways."