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Life Arts

Sisterhood is Powerful When it Tackles Teen Pregnancy

By       Message Elayne Clift     Permalink
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In 2003, a young woman spoke to her mentor, Dr. Hazel Brown, as they prepared for a press interview at the University of North Carolina/Greensboro. "You know," she said, "my brother is in prison. My sister had three babies as a teenager. In grade school I was a bully. I failed seventh grade but they passed me anyway because I'd done well in one test. I knew they wouldn't do it again so in high school I started studying. It was the hardest thing in my life but I made good grades -- straight A's mostly. I'm graduating now with a 4.0. I want to go to Xavier University in New Orleans."

This spring that same young woman received her doctorate in pharmacology from Xavier.

While being interviewed in 2003, she was a participant in College Bound Sisters, a program co-founded by Dr. Brown with Dr. Rebecca Saunders at UNCG. (Both women were maternity nurses, hold Ph.D. degrees, and taught at UNCG.) The program they started aims to avert teenage pregnancy in a particularly high risk group: younger sisters of teen mothers. College Bound Sisters is designed to help girls achieve three goals -- avoiding pregnancy; graduating from high school; and enrolling in college. It focuses on girls between ages 12 to 18. Program participants are required to have a sister who had a baby before age 18. They must never have been pregnant and they must demonstrate a desire to attend college as well as a commitment to attend weekly meetings. Each member who attends meetings, is not pregnant, and is still in school has $7.00 placed in her college fund weekly. The money is released upon enrollment in college. (Members also receive financial aid for transportation while attending meetings.)

"I'd seen too many teens having babies," recalls Dr. Brown, who worked from 1990 to 1995 with the state health department to establish a program for teenage mothers called Dollar a Day, designed to help them avert further pregnancies. "I began to wonder what we could do to establish a program for primary pregnancy prevention." Inspired by research showing that teenage girls with career or college aspirations were less likely to become pregnant, and by the theory that it is difficult to move toward a negative goal (e.g. "Don't get pregnant") than to aim for a positive one, Brown and Saunders successfully applied for grant money from the state Department of Health. In 1997 they launched College Bound Sisters which still enjoys state support.

Currently 24 girls in two age groups meet weekly with adult leaders. Meetings are held on the university campus and feature "food, fun, fellowship, and education. Guest speakers, campus field trips, demonstrations and an assortment of media covering a wide variety of topics help the program achieve its goals," Dr. Brown says. Quarterly meetings are also held with parents of program participants where issues related to adolescent girls are discussed.

The keystone to this format is a curriculum with four distinct units. Sexuality and Pregnancy Prevention focuses on topics such as anatomy and physiology; communication (e.g., how to say no, verbally and non-verbally); self-identity; and values. Promoting Healthy Lifestyles explores nutrition, exercise, stress management, healthy relationships, and alcohol/drug issues. Developing Life Skills is about goal-setting; career planning; and money management. Preparation for College includes financial planning; grades; admissions; and visiting colleges.

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After one such visit including sitting in on a class, one participant exclaimed, "I know what they were talking about. I can do this! I can go to college!"

Dr. Brown stresses that "everything [they do] is interactive," whether it's having participants use play dough to create anatomical parts as they envision them, or having an array of contraceptives available for the girls to handle during discussion. She also says there are "all kinds of support along the way" including tutoring and individual mentoring, often provided by sorority sisters on campus.

The need for this kind of program, which has won multiple awards, seems clear from the data: According to the United Nations, the U.S. still has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and birth among comparable countries. In 2006, the U.S. teen birth rate was 42 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19, one-and-a-half times higher than the teen birth rate in the U.K. Approximately one-third of young women in the U.S. become pregnant during their teen years; more than 80 percent of these pregnancies are unintentional. About 13 percent of U.S. births involve teen mothers and 25 percent of teenage girls who give birth have another baby within two years. Only one-third of these young mothers complete high school.

College Bound Sisters found that young women in their control group were twice as likely to become pregnant and drop out of school as program participants. Participants who graduated from high school were twice as likely to enroll in college as women in the control group, and while program participants reveal continued high self-esteem, control group members report drops in this indicator. To date, among the 125 participants only six have become pregnant while in the program.

"The work is demanding," says Hazel Brown, who hopes to replicate the program around the country. "But seeing them succeed is the icing on the cake. It is a calling for me to do this. It's my way of helping these girls to change their life trajectory."

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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