Reality Check for Teens Young Mothers Tell Students about Risks of Early Sexual Activity in Program Facing Budget Cuts
Wallace, Diana, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Diana Wallace Daily Herald Staff Writer
One eighth-grader thought drinking lots of Mountain Dew could prevent pregnancy.
Another extolled the supposed contraceptive properties of standing in front of a microwave oven before sex.
Katharine Gilmore wasn't surprised by the myths that abounded when she spoke at junior high schools. She'd certainly harbored her own.
That is, until she got pregnant at 13 by her 21-year-old boyfriend.
"I know it's kind of silly, but I was always a very intelligent kid, very precocious," Gilmore said, "and somehow in my brain, I thought you only got pregnant if you were stupid."
Gilmore is now 20, divorced and raising two daughters in Bolingbrook with a new boyfriend.
She's also one of a group of young moms who, during the past several years, have worked as "peer prevention educators" in an innovative, in-school sex-education program - a program whose long- term survival has now been called into question by budget cuts.
The program, called Adolescents with Awareness, Resources and Education, known as AWARE, is both lauded and criticized for its frank, fact-based, nonjudgmental approach to some of the topics parents and even middle school health teachers can be squeamish about tackling.
Speeches by young moms are just one part of the intensive, four- day seminar presented to girls and boys together, typically when they're in eighth grade.
A session for parents is also included before the student presentation.
While stressing abstinence as the only truly safe route, the program seeks to educate about the risks of early sex, including pregnancy and disease, but also addresses topics such as date rape, healthy relationships and decision-making, and how those can be undermined by substance abuse.
"It's surprising how little they really do understand (about sexual activity) -but how much they are doing," said Kelly DeMarco, director of education at Westmont's Care and Counseling Center, which supports women facing unwanted pregnancies and is one of four agencies that presents AWARE.
Perhaps the most potent message is delivered by the young moms themselves. While not meant to come across as "scared celibate" speeches, the talks by adolescent mothers give the students a dose of the relentless, all-consuming, sleep-depriving, wallet-draining, diaper-changing reality of raising a baby as a teen.
"We're the reality check," said M. Janet Bornancin, executive director of Glen Ellyn-based Greater DuPage MYM, which stands for Meld Young Minds. It provides support services to pregnant teens and teen mothers, some of whom serve as AWARE peer educators.
Last year, the group reached more than 6,000 students including those at Hill and Crone middle schools in Naperville, Jay Stream Middle School in Carol Stream, Stratford Middle School in Bloomingdale and St. Joseph Catholic School in Addison.
But while more presentations are already scheduled for the upcoming school year, AWARE's ability to survive long-term has been called into question by budget cuts at the DuPage County Health Department, which had picked up half the cost of the program.
The news of the budget cuts in the spring left MYM and the other organizations involved in AWARE - including the Care and Counseling Center and the YWCA - wondering how to keep the program afloat.
With AWARE presentations already scheduled for the upcoming school year, organizers thought they'd have to cancel them. But they turned to the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale, which has offered to temporarily run the health department's portion of the program.
The longer-term prospects for AWARE are still unknown, though.
"The (government) is always funding these kinds of programs, then taking them away and bringing them back, and that's a bad thing to do to the area," said Robert Crown Center President John Zaremba. …