03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reproductive Education Program Helps Break Poverty Cycle

By Aimee Lassor, Student Support Specialist with Communities In Schools, Johns Island, S.C.

One of my former students, a graduate of the class of 2009, came to visit me recently. Her name is Precious and her struggles have been as difficult as the struggles faced by the character Precious made famous first by Sapphire in her novel Push and now in the hit movie.

Many years ago, when I first met my Precious, she was headed straight back toward the cycle of poverty that she had come from. Her mother, a teen parent, was murdered in Harlem when Precious was just a baby. In the years I knew her, her older sister became a teen parent, eventually having four children that she could not support, and her older brother dropped out of school and has been in and out of jail.

Precious was 10 years old then and she had just joined our teen pregnancy prevention program called Teen Companion. I started working with this program eight years ago at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island, a rural sea island located just south of Charleston, S.C.

A young woman would be identified for my program based on several risk factors: Did she have a sibling who was a teen parent? Was she the child of a teen parent? Had she been sexually abused? Is she already sexually active? Did she feel a significant amount of peer pressure to become sexually active?

Once the students were identified, we began meeting weekly for age-appropriate group and individual education sessions. We implemented the same pregnancy prevention program with fourth and fifth grade students in area elementary schools and at the high school. Each grade level is given age-appropriate information starting with topics such as self esteem, family structure, gender roles, puberty and decision-making, then eventually moving into sexually transmitted infections and contraceptive education in later middle and high school. We developed a feeder system that would allow these young people to receive up to eight years of comprehensive and repetitive reproductive health education. Research has shown that both of these components are critical in the success of changing behavior around sexual activity.

Documentary-short by STV Productions After three years at the middle school I moved with my students to St. Johns High School to continue this ongoing sexuality education program. Around this time we received a generous grant from The New Morning Foundation to expand our work in the area of teen pregnancy prevention. The founder of Communities In Schools, Bill Milliken, is often quoted as saying that "programs don't change people, relationships do".

I found this to be very true as I continued to work with the same students that I had known for the previous three years. Through my relationship with these young women and their families a true sense of trust was established and the students really began to open up to me with questions, personal experiences and reproductive health needs. I tried my best to provide these girls with nonjudgmental, medically accurate information while encouraging them to stay focused on school and to make careful and deliberate decisions. I found that the more honest I was with them regarding the realities of sex and the possible consequences, the more honest they were with me.

This approach has worked well for me; in the past eight years with an average of 40 case-managed students per year, only four students have gotten pregnant. In January 2009, through a partnership with our local Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), we opened a Teen Health Center on Johns Island that specializes in reproductive health services. In just a year, the clinic has seen over 175 unduplicated patients and continues to grow with each passing month.

I believe that the increased access to confidential, affordable health services coupled with regular and comprehensive sexuality education from a nonjudgmental and trusted source within the school system has allowed me to empower my students to make systemic changes in their lives. When Precious stopped by to see me she was home for the holidays, visiting from Greenville, S.C. where she is currently enrolled as a freshman in college. She filled out the applications, she applied for financial aid and she even managed to get herself to Greenville-- three and a half hours away. Because of the relationship we formed and the comprehensive education I was able to provide, she has made a systemic change in her life. She once told me, "If not for your program, I probably wouldn't even know what the word abstinence meant." She is no longer headed back into the cycle of poverty but instead into a future that contains endless possibilities. "Now that I can see what I am capable of, I am not stopping here," she said. "I am never taking the easy way out again!"