Special Reports

Programs support teen parents

FRESNO -- Yulma Fajardo stood inside a Reedley College classroom filled with high school students, and candidly described her experience with teen pregnancy.

Fajardo, now a 30-year-old mother of three, told the young women attending the Fresno County Rural Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program's annual spring conference how difficult it was to raise young kids when she was practically a child herself. She told them how she had to postpone her dreams in order to become a responsible mother.

Afterward, Fajardo said she could have delayed her pregnancy if, as a teenager, she had attended a conference like the one she spoke at, and had participated in a comprehensive sexual education course.

"I wanted to do so many things," said Fajardo, who today is the manager of a school kitchen for the Kings Canyon Unified School District. "My dream was to travel. I wanted to work on an airline, and I wanted to travel, and go back to school.

"I see myself in those girls and I think, gosh, if I would have had just one glimpse, I would have probably thought things through differently," she said. "I truly believe in my heart I wouldn't be standing here with three kids at such a young age."

Since 1991, teen birth rates in California have decreased 50 percent, according to the Public Health Institute. Teen birth rates have also dropped significantly among the state's Latino population, though they still have the highest teen birth rate of all population groups.

That decline is closely connected to effective youth-oriented programs that have educated teenagers about sexual activity and reproductive health, and revealed to them future opportunities beyond parenthood, experts say.

"Education is one of the best contraceptives available -- and giving a sense of future hope," said Dr. Claire Brindis, a professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health.

The most effective way to educate young people about sexuality, and prevent teen pregnancy, is to offer them "the full complement" of courses and learning opportunities, said Phyllida Burlingame, sex education policy director for ACLU of Northern California.

"We want young people to be getting correct information about sexuality at home from their parents, in school through sex ed, and in all after-school programs," Burlingame said. "The more they get the information from all sides, the better it is."

That information is most effective when it comes with a message, said Bill Albert, chief program officer at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

"The most effective programs do provide good quality, accurate information, but also tend to have a point of view," Albert said. "They don't just say, 'Here is some information, good luck,' they say, 'Here is some good, accurate information, and here is how to use it to avoid sexually transmitted diseases or to avoid teen pregnancy."

Sometimes, though, youth don't get that education in time, or its messages do not sink in.

In the San Joaquín Valley, there are now numerous educational and supportive programs that help teen parents delay their second pregnancy until they have finished their education. These programs have proven to be crucial in helping young parents succeed in school and prepare for their future.

This spring, 18-year-old Valerie Ramírez attended Fresno Barrios Unidos' Healthy Decisions program, a comprehensive sexual education course that touts itself as non-biased, medically accurate, and culturally sensitive.

Ramírez, a senior at Roosevelt High School, and the mother of 1½-year-old Yanay, said she is confident that if she had participated in the course earlier during high school, "I think it would have delayed (my pregnancy.)"

"My parents never had 'the talk' with me," Ramírez said. She said she is determined to talk to her daughter about sex, so she does not become a teen mother as well.

Barrios Unidos is just one community-based organization in the Valley that strives to provide youth with comprehensive sexual education, so they can make informed decisions.

"We try to empower them with the knowledge that we give them, so we are not telling them what to do -- rather we are giving them information and resources for them to make that decision," said Socorro Santillán, executive director of Barrios Unidos.

Beyond educating youth, the program offers parent presentations. It also provides youth with access to reproductive health services, right inside its cozy office across the street from Roosevelt High School.

Every weekday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., youth can receive pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection testing, birth control, condoms, and emergency contraception, through a collaboration with Planned Parenthood and a local doctor.

They can access the services through Family PACT, a state-run program that provides confidential, no-cost family planning services to low-income men, women and teens.

The most effective teen pregnancy prevention programs offer this mix of information and access to services, said Sandra Flores, senior program officer at the Fresno Regional Foundation, which supports Barrios Unidos and other local groups through a teen pregnancy prevention grant.

"If we want our youth to succeed, giving them the information and the access to services is our way of saying, 'Here is our role as a community, as community leaders, to see you succeed,' " Flores said.

Yelmi Martínez became pregnant while she was a junior at McLane High School in Fresno. She transferred to Roosevelt High School in Fresno for her senior year, so her daughter, Rosa, could receive childcare through Fresno Unified School District's Parent and Child Education (PACE) program.

"That was my biggest help -- if it wasn't for PACE, I probably, honestly wouldn't have made it through high school," Martínez said.

"I didn't have childcare support from my mom or my baby's father," Martínez said. "PACE was the only place where I was able to take my daughter."

Now a 20-year-old student at Fresno City College, Martínez receives subsidized childcare for her daughter, known as Rosi, through Fresno City College's Child Development Center.

Fresno Unified's PACE program is primarily supported through the state Department of Education's School Aged Families Education program, known as Cal-SAFE. The approximatley 122 Cal-SAFE programs across the state provide academic support for parenting students, and childcare and development care for their children.

The Cal-SAFE program aims to help teen parents graduate from high school, and avoid having a second pregnancy before they graduate, said Mitzi Inouye, a consultant for the Cal-SAFE program.

It has been extremely successful in these goals.

Of the more than 98,000 expectant and parenting students who enrolled in the program since its implementation in 2000, more than 73 percent of students who exited the program successfully completed their high school education, according to a 2010 program report submitted to the state legislature.

That graduation rate far exceeds the 30 percent graduation rate for teen moms that was reported in a 2003 study, according to the report.

Mary Gwinn, who supervises the Tulare Adult School's Child Development Center, which is funded through Cal-SAFE, said the program is important in helping teen moms become successful, independent young women.

"I really believe that if we educate these girls, and make them independent and able to get into the workforce, they can take care of their own children, and we won't end up generationally taking care of them, as we have been doing," Gwinn said.

Beyond state-funded programs, organizations and community groups are also providing support to teen parents.

For example, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte's Teen Success programs bring together pregnant and parenting teens, ages 12 to 19, through weekly support-group meetings throughout the Valley.

The program encourages teen moms to maintain their family size until completing high school, so they can achieve a positive future for themselves and their children. The program also assists teens in enhancing their self-esteem, confidence and decision-making.

"The program helps many girls in here because there are a bunch of girls that are going through problems similar to yours, and you connect and talk to different girls that have a baby or have been pregnant," said 16-year-old Cynthia Partida, who is four months pregnant, and recently joined the Teen Success program in Madera.

"They can give you advice of what they went through," she said. The best advice she has received so far, she said, was, "get enough sleep now."

Planned Parenthood's Male Involvement Programs, with locations in Fresno and Madera, reach out to young men, who are often left out of the teen pregnancy prevention and parenting teen equations, said Pedro Elías, Planned Parenthood program coordinator.

The six-month program, which mainly serves young men between 16 and 18 years old, covers topics ranging from contraception and condom use, to developing a résumé and a future career, Elías said.

Though the Valley has few pregnancy prevention and parenting programs aimed at young men, Elias said they are necessary.

"They are very important, because a lot of the Latino fathers out in the community are not talking to their sons about pregnancy prevention, or simply having that conversation about life," Elías said.

The program is especially helpful to teen fathers, he said.

"Anything we help them learn is going to benefit them and their child and their family, and help them prevent a second pregnancy," he said. "If there is an opportunity for the community to be able to include the young men in the lives of their children, we are going to see the impact in the long run."