The Seeds of Sustainability

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.” – Chinese Proverb

If any example shows the importance of planting seeds and reaping the benefits of what we have sown, it is teen pregnancy. The teen pregnancy work conducted in Gaston County over the past five years has been historic. Historically low rates…historic elimination of the disparity between white and African American teen pregnancy rates…a historic funding opportunity that has brought an unmatched level of collaboration and commitment from our community.

It would be easy to sit back and enjoy our success; pat ourselves on the back and say job well done. But our job is nowhere near done.

As with any concluding program or grant, we are always concerned with what will happen next and as the Gaston Youth Connected (GYC)* project comes to a close this fall, it is this I’d like to talk about. I think the best way to break it down is to address three important questions that we have been asking ourselves over the course of this project.

What are we going to do to sustain this momentum?

Good public health programs should be aimed at both improving individual health outcomes and changing the systems and root causes of poor health. Similarly, Gaston Youth Connected was designed to initiate long-term community transformation in the way we deliver teen pregnancy prevention services. In this, it has been incredibly successful. Strengthened relationships between our health care providers, school staff, the faith community, and evidence-based health education programs for youth have laid the foundation for even greater collaborative work in the future. New and improved health centers, like our Teen Wellness Centers, now follow best practices for working with this population. The work to prevent teen pregnancy no longer belongs just to the health department. Teen pregnancy work is now in the hands and hearts of the hundreds of parents, churches, schools, community agencies, young people, and many others who have been involved in this project and their combined passion for this issue will live on.

What will teen pregnancy prevention look like after this grant ends in September?

In a lot of ways, it will look pretty much the same. Our Teen Wellness Centers will stay open and continue providing cutting edge, teen friendly health services to youth. Local community organizations that have received countless trainings and resources from the project will keep serving our youth with a new capacity to address their reproductive health needs in a way they didn’t in the past. DHHS’s teen pregnancy prevention programs will continue to educate local youth about how to protect their health and their futures. We have secured a new State grant to support programs that were initiated with GYC funds and our county continues to prioritize this issue by funding positions and programs that will sustain this work.

What have we learned from this project that we can use to guide our work in other areas?

Numbers don’t lie.  We’ve seen an amazing decline in our teen pregnancy rates.  This work, however, has also taught us a lot about what is needed to get such extraordinary results. Some of the major lessons-learned are:

Our work must start today. We know it can take years to see results like the ones we’ve seen in teen pregnancy. We cannot afford to wait for the right time or right program or the right funding opportunity. Even before GYC, we started making small but significant changes to our clinic structure to improve our teen services and had begun building relationships with other organizations to address teen pregnancy. These actions set the stage for an opportunity like GYC and greatly contributed to its overall success.

Collaboration is key. We cannot address health issues like teen pregnancy in silos. Just as there are many factors that contribute to public health issues, there are many people and organizations that can contribute to solving these problems. We must all come to the table and plan together.

Every penny spent in prevention is worth the investment. Think about the hundreds of teen pregnancies prevented over the past five years and consider the healthcare costs, the social costs, and the economic costs that are avoided by having young women and men able to focus on finishing school rather than supporting a baby. Conservative estimates approximate that in just 3 years we have saved over $6.5 million dollars. These are the types of returns on our investments that pave the way for long-term change and economic stability.

We are so thankful for the Gaston Youth Connected project for helping us plant the seeds for success in this health issue. But while we’re enjoying the shade beneath the trees that have blossomed from these accomplishments, let us continue planting seeds for future progress and future generations.

Chris Dobbins, Director                                                                                                                  Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services

*Gaston Youth Connected is a community-driven project that takes a multi-pronged approach to addressing teen pregnancy. You can learn more about the project at gastonyouthconnected.org

If you would like to learn more about any of the DHHS programs or public health issues mentioned in this article, please visit our website at www.gastonhhs.org or feel free to contact us through www.gastonhhs.org/contact-us.

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