The Teen Outreach Story by Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski
Teen Outreach is not about us. It's not about me. I repeatedly remind my staff that our focus must always be the young people we serve and their families. Yet when asked to consider the 32 years since I began the Teen Outreach I'm reminded of the personal nature of the Outreach's mission. The Outreach is my fourth child; Rich and I raised three children and our remaining efforts crystallized in this work I've been blessed to embrace. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to partner with The Washington Health System to provide quality youth education to our community.
I began working with young people in the seventies as a result of a gut-wrenching experience. I assisted at the labor and birth of a very young (12) teen mother. As a childbirth educator I was asked to prepare her for birth by her mother and Children and Youth Services (she was in foster placement) and had taught her only two sessions when she called me at my home at 10:30 PM and stated, "Ain't nobody going with me." I ascertained that she was in labor. I joined her. A very long 19 hours later her baby was born.
Her pregnancy was the result of a 'consensual' encounter with a 16 year old youth, but her life prior to that conception was marked by severe sexual abuse. My experience with her represented a number of firsts for me: she was the first client I visited at home, she was the first young mother I knew who was an abuse survivor, and she was the first teen (of many) I served as a doula. She also chose adoption for her baby, and stated firmly that she could not see or touch the baby, or even know the gender of the infant, if she was to remain strong in that choice. I'd alerted the delivery room staff to maintain silence - to not shout out the traditional "It's a boy" or "It's a girl". The only sounds at the baby's birth were the newborn's cries and the young mother's sobs. My scrub suit was soaking wet from her tears. She inspired me to try to make a difference.
I began volunteering at schools with teen parents; funding for that aspect of the Outreach was received in 1996 - nearly 20 years of time spent with young parents who taught me as much as I taught them. I am blessed with amazing staff members who continue to mentor young parents through our Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program (PPT). Typically we serve between 70 - 120 pregnant/parenting teens annually - both mothers and fathers. Each young person is respected and the program is tailored to meet the parent's educational, social, emotional and parenting needs. Goals of the PPT Program include modeling positive parenting styles, graduation from high school, and delaying a subsequent pregnancy. We have amazing data from this program. Nationally less than 40% of teen moms finish high school; our graduation rates for young parents vary from 88% - 96%. Research shows that 24% of teen mothers have a second birth within two years of their first. I am thrilled to share that our second pregnancy rate has been lower than 5% since the late nineties; in the last five years 0 - 3% of our young mothers experienced a subsequent pregnancy.
If I began by teaching young parents, how did I become the "Sex Lady"? One day in 1988 I'd just finished teaching as a volunteer at a local high school. One of the guidance counselors asked why I couldn't teach all students to avoid teen pregnancy. I decided I would try. Working closely with two visionary people from the Washington Health System - Telford Thomas and Dr. Helen Barkus - we introduced the first sexuality education in the county. Since then my staff and I have reached over 230,000 young people through our original Real Talk for Real TeensTM in-school curriculum in all 14 Washington County school districts, all Greene County school districts, one Allegheny County and one Westmoreland County district. Since our inception the Washington County teen pregnancy rate among 15 - 17 year olds (our target group) dropped from 36/1000 in 1989 to 12/1000. Education for behavioral change is challenging; we developed seven programs to address diverse parent/youth needs. Our first was What's Up as You Grow Up?, a parent/youth program that encourages communication and provides early sexuality education. Evaluations show consistent positive results; one parent wrote "my husband took our son to this program when he was 10 years old and he is now 19 years old. This program opened the doors of communication which continues today. Thank you!"
When an adult teaches it's a whisper; when a teen teaches it's a shout. Peer education empowers young people to become role models and teach others. Over 10,000 teens have been trained to teach their peers since 1995. The Real Talk Performers is an educational drama group that grew from peer education. I wrote our first original play in 1996 while my dear father was dying; called Till Human Voices Wake us, the play looked at teen pregnancy. Since then Real Talk Performers have presented 21 plays locally and at state and national professional conferences, won three first place state drama competitions, and filmed two videos on drug/alcohol prevention.
ECHO (Educate Children for Healthy Outcomes) is a proactive youth development program that strives to reach potentially at-risk young people in grades 2 - 12 through one-on-one educational mentoring. We are in the process of formal evaluation for ECHO to ascertain if it is replicable. Our staff has mentored 561 young girls since 1999 and only three pregnancies have resulted. ECHO staff are 'on call' 24/7, 365 days of the year. A crisis does not always occur between the hours of 9 and 5. My staff and I have contacted the police less than 15 minutes after a sexual assault, have stopped suicides by alerting parents to their teen's despair, and have helped young people who are confused find a trusted adult within their families.
Our work is teen-driven. Since 1999 an average of 75 teens meet with us monthly as part of our Adolescent Advisory Board. They review new original curricula and help us understand youth culture. We host annual Youth Leadership Conferences at Washington and Jefferson College. Our Ambassador for Respect Program is in its 7th year and reaches over 18,000 county youth. Teens supervise at the Common Ground Teen Center we've run since 2008. Young people are our foundation - empowering them to stand alone while making healthy choices is our primary goal. Our newest program focuses on child abuse prevention. Entitled Inside Out: Your Body is Amazing Inside and Out and Belongs Only to You, the program targets 3rd and 4th graders with body-positive, empowering messages.
Our students are our teachers. We've learned that the link between abuse and early childbearing is real. We've learned to respect all types of youth. We've learned that education can make a lasting difference in the lives of young people. We've learned to teach information young people need, not information adults wish they needed. We've learned how much misinformation young people encounter online and we respond with medically accurate facts and skill-building that helps teens manage cyberbullying and sexting. Most importantly, we've learned that each young person is a person of great worth.
I am inclusive in my educational mission simply because I respect all. I vowed in the seventies to reach out to all young people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, belief, socio-economic status, academic prowess, ability/disability, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. We empower all young people. I stand strong in that commitment.
Recently a 9th grade student asked if I ever planned to retire. I jokingly told her that my retirement plan was to take out a full page ad in the Observer Reporter (where I write a weekly column answering teen questions called Ask Mary Jo). The ad would state that I had written a memoir and for $20 a person's name would not be in the book. The class laughed, secure in the knowledge that I won't reveal a confidence. Then the 9th grader became somber. She asked me to keep teaching because she couldn't imagine "raising a 15 year old daughter without you." Touched, I asked her when she planned to become a parent. When I'm 25, she responded. I quickly did the math. She's 15 now and wants me to continue teaching 10 years until she has this future daughter, then 15 years more. 25 more years! That would be an honor and a great joy. If God is willing, another 25 years and more of Teen Outreach is exactly what I plan.