Quality mentoring encourages healthy life choices

As part of our 20 Challenges in 2012 initiative to celebrate Mass Mentoring’s 20th anniversary, we are releasing a series of challenges to address key goals of mentoring in Massachusetts. Goal six is 20 ways that communities grow with mentoring. The Highland Street Corps Ambassadors of Mentoring have researched 20 ways that mentoring provides positive social benefits that strengthen schools, families and communities. You can read more about their findings here.

[caption id="attachment_926" align="alignleft" width="159"] Devin Smith[/caption]

This guest post is from Devin Smith, an Ambassador at Science Club for Girls.

Erica Flecher is the prevention director at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. With more than 15 years of experience in the youth development and prevention fields, she is an expert on working with communities, organizations and schools to prevent teen pregnancy. I sat down with her to discuss teen pregnancy in Massachusetts, and the use of quality mentoring programs as a strategy to combat it:

Devin: How common is teen pregnancy in Massachusetts?

Erica: Massachusetts has the second lowest teen birth rate in the country, but one of the highest disparities between whites and other ethnicities. Teen pregnancy rates are highest in communities where the adult population has lower rates of higher education, and there are fewer perceived opportunities for advancement. When young people have reasons to delay pregnancy, they do. Communities that encourage young people to pursue educational and career goals generally have lower rates of teen pregnancy.

D: Which teens are most at risk?

E: In Massachusetts, teens that live in areas of high income inequality are at a higher risk of early pregnancy than communities that are uniformly impoverished or wealthy. Being poor in a poor community surrounded by wealthy communities creates a higher risk for pregnancy because they see lifestyles and wealth they do not think they can obtain. Additionally, many of these same communities experience high rates of violence, early death and imprisonment. Young parenthood is a response to environments where young people face the possibilities of early death, poverty and few perceived opportunities for self-advancement.

D: Would you define teen pregnancy as a public health problem?

E: We’re trying to prevent it (teen pregnancy) for many reasons. Pregnancy at an early age negatively affects economically depressed communities because you’re losing potential wage-earners and tax-payers when youth are not able to complete high school or college through lost income potential. Class mobility as a young parent is very difficult because of the financial pressures put upon you before you're ready, and contributes to the cycle of poverty in impoverished communities. By focusing on prevention, building support for young people in general, and teen parents in particular, we can end that cycle of poverty.  With the right support, teen parents can finish school, and earn income to support their families.

D: What kind of information and support do teens need to make healthy life choices?

E: Many adults are not equipped to talk about sex and healthy relationships, so it’s difficult to teach this to young people. Integrating science-based knowledge about sexual health and youth development principles that encourage smart decision making and goal setting in programs that serve youth are a good start. An example of this is Girls Inc. in Holyoke. They have started doing “college showers,” similar to baby showers, as a way to celebrate high school seniors going to college by having a party and providing them with the things they’ll need for their dorms.  Things like this shift the paradigm and message about what a community values and wants from its young people. We want to encourage all young people to know they have opportunities in their future.

D: Would you recommend mentoring relationships as a preventative tool against teen pregnancy?

E: I would recommend mentoring as a preventative tool. The best preventative strategies combine education with tools for resiliency and get the whole community involved. What is the role of the school, clinic, faith leaders, civic leaders, city councilors, volunteers? Where can we utilize them? When you have buy-in from everyone in the community and can mobilize them together to change the messages young people hear about their future opportunities, that’s when change can happen. Mentoring does provide the support teens need to build resiliency and make smarter choices. Programs for teens that are already parenting or pregnancy also provide mentoring-type relationships, which makes a difference, because it can help young parents delay a second child so they can work on their own educational and career goals.

For more information about the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy’s research, programs and services, check out their website at: www.massteenpregnancy.org.