In 2001, the United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council (WLC) of Anderson County, South Carolina, gathered a group of the town’s most influential women—entrepreneurs, educators, community leaders, and philanthropists. The purpose was to answer two questions: What was the county’s most pressing issue and what would they be willing to do about it? The women deliberated and decided on one problem they felt interrelated with so many others: teen pregnancy.
Examining the subject more closely, this group of women discovered that teen pregnancy was not only profoundly altering the lives of young girls and their progeny, but also costing tax payers millions of dollars—some $7.7 million each year, a figure that includes lost tax revenue, public assistance, and incarceration costs. “Many of the children of teen moms enter the juvenile justice system and land up in jail,” says Carol Burdette, the president of the United Way of Anderson County, adding that early motherhood was one decision from which few young women and men could fully rebound to become successful financially and professionally.
Anderson County is composed of about eight small towns with just 180,000 citizens. By flagging the impact on local taxpayers, the Anderson Country WLC was able to get the attention of a wide spectrum of community members, who then coordinated efforts to bring a comprehensive sex-education program into local schools. Raising about $55,000 from community leaders enabled the WLC to hire Kristin Fouts, a recent college graduate, to be the program director for the new Anderson County School District 3 Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.
“Teen pregnancy is a cycle,” says Fouts. “If your mother got pregnant as a teen, you are more likely to do the same thing, and your children are more likely to live in poverty.” She teaches two courses to help stop this progression. One is focused on basic facts about sexuality, the other on decision-making skills. She presents the material in an engaging and relatable way to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, offering each level of student increasingly more detailed information about pregnancy, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases. She also engages the students in role-playing, teaching them how to resist the pressure to be sexually involved, and works on developing their self-esteem and assertiveness.
The program has proved successful on many levels. First, the Anderson County WLC's focus on this issue has inspired 1,100 women from the region to get involved by donating both their money and efforts to the cause. Second, the District 3 program has seen a significant reduction in teen pregnancies—from 16 in 2006, down to four in 2012. And now they’ve expanded the curriculum to Anderson School District 4 in Pendleton, South Carolina.
Another important consequence has been that adolescents involved in the program find a nurturing connection that doesn't involve sex. “Many of these students didn't have stable relationships at home—no authority figures to talk to,” says Fouts. “We provide them a safe place to go to talk about all issues and to connect with an adult and feel safe.” Adds Juana Slade, a program volunteer, “By making this investment in our community, we are literally changing girls’ lives, and impacting the lives of generations to come.”