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To prevent teen pregnancy, provide opportunities for young people

Girls at Friendship Woodridge Public Charter School in Northeast learn about positive self-image.

"The strategy is to educate these girls so when they go to that next step and look at their image and self worth, we�re equipping them with tools to make informed decisions,� says Girls on the Run DC executive director

Each meeting of Girls on the Run at Friendship Woodridge PCS starts with a life lesson, then moves into physical activity

Girls look at the encouraging words their friends wrote about them during a lesson about self-image

 If students are engaged in meaningful activities after school and during the week, they're less at risk, say experts. These programs cure a host of social ills through providing positive opportunities for teens and young girls.
Editor's note: Starting this month, Elevation DC is taking a look at teen pregnancy in the District--an issue that affects us all, but none more so than the thousands of girls in D.C. who become pregnant each year. We're looking at what programs work and how, what effects a high teen pregnancy rate has on the city as a whole, and how to best change the narrative. This story is about programs that may not have teen pregnancy prevention as an explicit part of their mission, but by providing meaningful opportunities for teens and girls, has that effect and more. Look for more stories on this topic through the rest of 2014.

After graduation, Aysa Nixon, a senior at McKinley Technological high school, plans to attend beauty school while working to save money toward obtaining a degree in business management.
And she strives to stay just as focused in her personal life.
“I’m trying to stay from doing something that I would be disappointed or ashamed of,” she says.
Teenagers engage in countless activities that could lead to the type of distress that Nixon fears—one of which is unprotected sex leading to teen pregnancy.
While the District has seen a steady decrease in teen births in the past few years, the birth rate for teenagers 15–19 is still a concern. In 2011, there were 879 births to girls aged 15 to 19 in the District of Columbia, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. 
Statistics have shown that compared to their counterparts, teen girls with children are less likely to graduate high school, enter post-secondary school and engage in flourishing careers. Nationally, only 38 percent of girls who have a child before age 18 graduate high school. Only two percent get a college degree by age 30.
"It's about providing greater opportunities"
Since November 2013, Nixon has been receiving professional development training as an intern in the office of alumni affairs at the Urban Alliance headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Urban Alliance is a national organization designed to empower under-resourced youth by providing them with formal training, paid internships and mentoring to ignite a spirit of work ethic and career mindedness. The program's mission isn't explicitly about preventing teens from getting pregnant—or improving health or self-esteem—but quality youth programs accomplish all that in addition to their primary missions.
“It’s not so much that we’re focusing on drilling in that you can’t get pregnant, it’s about providing greater opportunities,” says Wendy-Ann Dixon-DuBois, Urban Alliance’s director of outreach and communications. “So for us, we see it as an intervention—if students are engaged in meaningful activities after school and during the week, that means less time for them to get caught up.”
To be effective in its mission, Urban Alliance needs to address circumstances that may prevent students from thriving in a professional environment.
“We realize that we can’t expect our young people to be performing and functioning to optimal levels in a work or school environment if their basic needs aren’t being met and if they aren’t living to their full capacity because there are other challenges they may be facing,” says Dixon-Dubois.  “We…have to meet our young people where they are and be flexible … and work toward what would be ideal and optimal but know that they aren’t starting there.”
In addition to working as interns three days a week, participants are required to attend weekly workshops for added support.
“We know that we aren’t experts in health or relationships so that’s when we focus on our partners in other areas who do have those strengths,” says Dixon-Dubois, who cites organizations like Metro Teen AIDS, Men Can Stop Rape and the Young Womens Project as valuable partners to the organization.
March’s workshop theme is healthy living and focuses on relationships and sexual, mental and emotional health. Thus far, these workshops have given Nixon a new outlook on keeping a clear mind, remaining positive and reducing stress.  
"We have to meet our young people where they are and be flexible."
Urban Alliance’s practice of providing social support with career guidance has proven to work well for their high schoolers. 
“It gives me something to do, think about and focus on,” says Nixon. “It gives more insight into the workforce and it helps re-evaluate decisions that I probably would have made without the program.” 
Staying on course
Girls on The Run - DC has also found a way to sneak the message of teen pregnancy prevention—among other healthy-living principles—into its curriculum for a much younger audience. Not only does the non-profit’s program provide running instruction, it shares with its participants approaches for staying on course in all areas of life.
“Ultimately, the strategy is to educate these girls so when they go to that next step and look at their image and self worth, we’re equipping them with tools to make informed decisions,” says Kristen Komlosy, executive director of Girls on the Run - DC.
The program serves elementary and middle-school-aged girls from all eight wards of the city. Over the course of ten weeks, girls from grades 3-5 focus on positive emotional, social, mental and physical development, while girls from grades 6-8 discuss more in-depth topics such as eating disorders, Internet safety, relationships, cyber-bullying and tobacco and alcohol use.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from and what your economic status as a family is, the program is unique in that it delivers the same strong character-building concept to girls across the city,” says Komlosy. “Our girls are individuals who need and deserve that.”
Parents also seem to agree that a program that can give such a character boost to their children is a necessity. This year alone, the program will serve 1,700 girls through a partnership with the DC public school system.

The girls might not even realize, at first, that they're building character. "A lot of girls who join our program join because they know the activities (even the character development ones) are fun, and they get to hang out with their girl friends and be on a team with them," says Carolyn Brandt, health coordinator and manager of the Girls On The Run program at Marie Reed Elementary.

"Most of the activities are little games that are challenging in a way that gives them a chance to cheer their friends on and help each other out." On the other hand, even young girls are pretty savvy. Brandt adds that "they also know that it's a time for them to bond with their friends and talk about things with them that they wouldn't necessarily have an outlet to talk about," whether that's bullying, gossip, or body image.
At the end of the program, parents can rest assured that their girls will graduate with a heightened understanding of how to value themselves and their bodies, while the girls take home memories of staying active with friends and crossing the finish line in a celebratory 5K run.
“Girls on the Run - DC is helping girls become strong leaders and adopt healthy lifestyles and make healthy choices ultimately preventing at-risk behaviors such as teen pregnancy,” says Komlosy.

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina Sturdivant is a native Washingtonian who's always watching and writing about the latest cultural, community and innovative trends in the city. She's interested in people and companies that create equitable opportunities for longtime residents and transplants alike.
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