Tag Archives: Gaston Youth Connected

Gaston Youth Connected: Doing Something Together

SEABROOK SAYS: Most Gaston County folks do not know the writer, Sally Swanson.  She was the leader of our very effective five-year teen pregnancy reduction effort. Does reading this encourage you to help continue to reduce teen pregnancy?  I hope so.

Roughly half of all pregnancies in our state – and in our country are unplanned. That doesn’t mean that the children born from these pregnancies are unwanted or unloved or doomed from the get go. But it means that these families might not be prepared – ready for the cost of diapers and child care; in a safe, stable home and relationship; with basic supportive benefits, like the ability to take time from work or school to even give birth.  Teenagers approach pregnancy, birth, and parenting with added challenges: they may not have finished high school and haven’t finished college, they likely don’t have a resume or savings or a credit history, and, as they approach the task of parenting a child – which is hard for anyone – they are deeply stigmatized in their families, communities, and society. When we talk about addressing teen pregnancy, we don’t do it to cast aspersions on young people or young parents. In fact, let me be very clear: Young parents can be great parents when they have the support they need, and health departments have been key players in that support system. We talk about teen pregnancy to encourage communities to do what they can to make sure that the children in their communities – in their classrooms, on their playgrounds, as their future workers and leaders – are surrounded by families who are emotionally and financially ready to parent. We do it to protect the ability of each community’s young people to build a strong future for themselves. We do it because we know that the skills it takes for a 17 year old to avoid an unplanned pregnancy carry forward to 27 and 37. We do it because teen pregnancy is almost entirely preventable when our education systems, our health systems, and our community norms align to support young people and to support prevention.

Five years ago, across sectors of the community, Gaston County scaled up pregnancy prevention efforts by working on four major components: mobilizing the community, implementing evidence-based programs, improving health care services for adolescents, and linking young people to both health care and programmatic services. In addition, there was special focus on the most high-risk populations, most notably, older teens.

Community leaders came together to serve on a series of leadership teams, including one for youth, to take on planning and implementing the initiative. These teams spent the better part of a year surveying the community, assessing needs, and planning. In the process of surveying the community, we found that 96% of county residents thought the community should do more to prevent teen pregnancy, that 87% of parents thought it was important for teens to have a place to get birth control, and that 80% thought their own child should have information on birth control even though they hoped their child would stay abstinent. 

To implement programs, we helped build the capacity of organizations and youth-serving professionals across the community to provide evidence-based programs. More than 6,500 young people have since participated in an evidence-based program, and most of these participants came from the county’s teen birth hot spots.

In 2012, Gaston County Health Department opened the Teen Wellness Center, a clinic that provides a full complement of health care services, including sexual and reproductive health care. Young people provided input to redesign a section of the main health department clinic to serve teens and young adults. The walls are bright blue and green, the magazine racks are stocked with Teen Vogue and Sports Illustrated, instead of Woman’s Day. The posters and pamphlets are designed for teens. More importantly, though, the staff is trained to provide adolescent-friendly health care. How do I know this is the more important part? Because we’ve worked with the community’s private providers, as well, to make the same changes in practice, and they’re making progress even without redesigning a space. When we look at the combined reach of the private providers and the health department, providers who have committed to adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health care served 36% of the county’s 15-19 year old female population in 2013.

The Gaston Youth Connected also worked to connect teens to the health care they need. “If you build it, they will come,” does not work – even if you have a gorgeous space just for teens. They have to know where to go, they have to know about their right to get care, and they have to feel welcome. Youth-serving professionals and school personnel were trained on how to make a good referral for teens. We introduced a social marketing campaign to try to reach older teens who are less attached to systems like the school system and who are too old for most youth programs. And, program partners incorporated a lesson on how to seek health care.

So, all of these activities are great, but what about the results? Since the project started, teen pregnancies in Gaston County have dropped 43% – that’s compared to around 37% statewide. At the start of the project, Gaston County’s teen pregnancy rate was 17% higher than the state rate; now it’s only 6% higher. And, there is more, the racial gap between white and black rates closed, indicating significant strides in addressing a long standing disparity.

My hope for the community is that everyone can continue to educate, provide needed services and work in concert to prevent unplanned, too early pregnancies. Onward!

Sally Swanson
Chief Program Officer
SHIFT NC

 

 

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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.

We Owe This to Our Youth

Her name was Lucy.  She was a petite, fragile looking, seven-year-old with large, questioning eyes.  When she spoke, which was rare, it was in a tiny high-pitched voice that seemed better suited to a cartoon mouse.   She didn’t really socialize with the others, but she was always kind, willing to share, and would occasionally grace us with a dazzling smile.   She spent the majority of our time together doodling and singing quietly to herself, oblivious to the world around her.  One afternoon, at the end of a long week, I put on music and announced to the class that we would be having a dance-off.   After a few contestants, Lucy shyly raised her hand to take a turn.  I could never have predicted what was about to happen.  As she took the floor, she suddenly broke into “the robot” followed by a sequence of break dance moves that hadn’t been popular for close to 20 years.  The class erupted into cheers and delighted laughter.  As she concluded her performance, by executing a seated spin on the floor, I thought, “This child is special.”

And she was special.  She is special … wherever she may be.  ALL of the students in my first grade class were special.   Teaching solidified the belief on which my current work in public health is rooted:  ALL children are special and ALL children deserve to be nurtured in a safe, supportive home with parents who can properly care for them and make them a genuine priority in their lives.

So how do we ensure that this happens?  First, we must give people the resources they need to plan when they have children.  The most basic of these resources is accurate information about reproductive anatomy, conception, contraception (including abstinence), and how to access health services.  Generally speaking, a child born of a planned pregnancy has the odds stacked in their favor from the very beginning.

The decision of when to have a child is, of course, very personal.  Most everyone can agree, however, that parenting is best delayed until adulthood.  Although I have met some outstanding teen parents in Gaston County, most are quick to explain why delaying pregnancy is important.  They know firsthand how becoming a parent changed their schedules, their sleep, their priorities, their friends, their family, and even their life goals.  I see the obstacles that teen parents face, and I also know the challenges their children face: they are much more likely to experience poverty, abuse, neglect, school failure, chronic health problems, and incarceration than children born to older parents.  Sadly, statistics also show that teen pregnancy is cyclical – daughters of teen mothers are three times more likely to become teen parents themselves.

Gaston County has seen great declines in teen pregnancy over the past several years thanks, in large part, to those involved in the Gaston Youth Connected initiative.  Young people in our community are getting the information they need to make smart decisions about their relationships, their bodies, and ultimately, their lives.  We must ensure that this continues.  We owe this to our youth.  We also owe the future children of Gaston County the opportunity to be born into circumstances that provide them with the best possible chance of success … unlike Lucy.

See, what the rest of my class didn’t know about Lucy was that she was found, at approximately 3 days of age, abandoned under a bridge.  I don’t know much about Lucy’s mother –if she was a teen or not – but I do know two things about her:  1) for some reason, she was not ready to be a parent and 2) she had an incredible daughter, against whom the odds were stacked.

By Carrie Meier

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Supervisor

Gaston County Department of Health & Human Services

May is Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month

Teen Pregnancy Down/Benefits Up!

May is Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month and a great time to reflect on the progress made in preventing too-early pregnancies. Three and a half years ago, Gaston County rallied together – with the added resources and focus of the Gaston Youth Connected (GYC) initiative – to amplify prevention efforts and to impact one of the community’s lagging health indicators. Since its inception, GYC has pulled together hundreds of adults and thousands of youth to implement effective prevention strategies. And it’s worked!
Teen pregnancy is at a historic low in Gaston County – a full 28% lower than when the project started. While there is a nationwide trend of declining teen pregnancy rates, Gaston County’s progress stands out. Notably, the historical gap that has existed in pregnancy rates between African American and White teens was eliminated in the 2012 rates. This progress reflects hard, thoughtful work of many partners across the county.

Gaston Youth Connected does a lot of counting. Over 140 community partners have engaged with the project, either to host awareness activities or directly serve youth and families. GYC-funded education programs have reached over 2,000 young people. These programs are effective at helping young people understand healthy relationships, the benefits and skills to delay sexual activity, and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. Program participants significantly increase their knowledge about abstinence, birth control and where to get prevention services when needed. 1 in 5 sexually active teens who seek contraception receive one of the most effective methods – a much higher percentage than the statewide average. 45 youth leaders have been trained as advocates and peer educators and have reached more than 600 additional young people with accurate information. What’s more, 9 in 10 parents support the prevention strategies of GYC.
Failing to prevent too early pregnancies can result in tough consequences for families and young people and also generate public costs. The GYC investment in prevention is already paying off – for families and at savings of $4 for every $1 invested. So, it is worth caring about and taking a stand to make a difference.
This May, let’s take a moment to recognize the progress and serve up credit across the county – to parents who have on-going important conversations with their adolescents, to the amazing people who work directly with youth, to civic-minded individuals and groups who find a way to raise awareness and share prevention efforts, and, most importantly, to young people themselves who are quite simply making better and better choices about relationships, health, and prevention.
Bravo, Gaston.

Sally Swanson, Executive Director
Gaston Youth Connected