Big Challenge Needs a Serious Approach

Originally published in The Daily News - Jacksonville, NC.

To the editor:

Six teenagers get pregnant each week in Onslow County — a number that rivals all but the most populous counties in North Carolina. These pregnancies — most of which are unintended and unprepared for — are deeply woven into many other issues that matter to local residents: poverty, child abuse, domestic violence and dropout rates. They also cost Onslow County taxpayers more than $9.8 million each year. To continue to allow more than 300 families each year to face this uncertain future — without any meaningful attempt to change it — is both sad and deeply immoral.

Two years ago, leaders in Onslow County pulled together to create Healthy Youth of Onslow, a committee to figure out how the county could address this must-solve issue. Healthy Youth of Onslow surveyed hundreds of parents, worked with community organizations and faith communities and provided widely-attended education events for adults who work with youth. SHIFT NC (formerly the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina) helped coordinate this process, building on a long history of supporting Onslow County organizations.

When Healthy Youth of Onslow requested more resources to support teen health, SHIFT NC was at the ready to help them leverage and compete for funding. Ultimately, though, it was the hard work of this committee, of parents and local organizations that helped secure funding from the federal Office of Adolescent Health. The expanded funding allows Healthy Youth of Onslow to continue its important work through a new initiative: NC Youth Connected.

NC Youth Connected will help the community take a coordinated approach: empowering parents to be more engaged in their teens’ lives; helping community agencies implement programs that are proven to work; and making health services more comfortable and accessible for young people and their families. When SHIFT NC worked with Gaston County to take a similar approach, the teen pregnancy rate fell 41 percent in just four years. Over the same timeframe, Onslow County teen pregnancy rates decreased only 24 percent, lagging far behind the rest of the state.

It’s an approach that fits Onslow County. Eight in 10 parents say Onslow County hasn’t been doing enough to address teen pregnancy. Eight in 10 parents say that providing teens with factual information about pregnancy prevention will help them become healthier adults.

Even though the overwhelming majority of parents are supportive of the NC Youth Connected approach, we recognize there are a few people in the community who feel differently. We have worked closely with them to offer information and full transparency. What Onslow County can’t afford is more wasted time on ineffective efforts.

So what happens next? A community work group is in the process of conducting a thorough and scientifically rigorous needs assessment. This will include mapping areas of the community with the highest pregnancy rates, understanding the gaps that exist and helping local organizations pick and choose strategies that match the needs of the youth they serve. Most importantly, though, this process involves listening to parents and teens through focus groups and surveys. No strategy will work if it doesn’t work for them.

From the needs assessment, Onslow County will implement evidence-based programs and approaches — meaning programs that have been proven to work — that reflect the most serious local needs, as well as the values of the community and the opinions of its parents, leaders, and teens.

Ultimately, NC Youth Connected is about more than just programs. It’s about increasing parental confidence so parents are more engaged and have faith that the programs and services their children receive are helpful and age-appropriate. It’s about giving youth the skills they need to put their own values — the ones they learn at home or where they worship — into practice in the real world as they grow and mature. It’s about helping healthcare providers understand the unique social, emotional, and medical needs of teens so that they can be active helpers in preventing unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s about making sure that government agencies and nonprofits are more effective stewards of taxpayer dollars by investing only in what works.

Unfortunately, the small minority that opposes this community-supported initiative has become increasingly vocal, spreading rumors and even trying to politicize the topic. For example, these folks suggest that the project is funded by Planned Parenthood, when SHIFT NC has never received funding from Planned Parenthood for this or any other project. Playing games with young people and their health is a surefire way to prevent progress.

What is certainly true is that Onslow County has a major opportunity to harness the power of parents, professionals and concerned citizens to seriously improve the prospects for the young people who live here. The end result will be much greater than a lower teen pregnancy rate. The real payoff is a healthier, stronger Onslow County.

Kay Phillips, Chief Executive Officer