By Michaela Gibson Morris
TUPELO – Gov. Phil Bryant joined community advocates in Tupelo on Tuesday to face down the challenge of teen parenthood.
“This is a grassroots effort,” said Bryant, who has spoken at a series of community meetings across the state since launching Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi in April 2012. “It’s going to take each and every one of us.”
Mississippi’s 2011 teen birth rate – 50.2 births per 1,000 girls 15 to 19 years old – has improved significantly over the past two decades dropping by more than 40 percent since 1991, but is remains notably higher than the national average – 31.3 births per 1,000.
Broad efforts to call community groups, churches and individuals to action aren’t about shaming teen moms, Bryant told a group of more than 150 on Tuesday.
“We worry about her quality of life,” Bryant said, and the quality of life of her children.
All of the negative outcomes for children and young adults – poverty, lack of education, incarceration, are worse for teen moms and their children. Not only does teen pregnancy cost taxpayers more because the moms and their children need more aid and services, but it also impacts future economic development.
“We won’t have the educated workforce we need to attract the Yokohama Tire Companies and the Toyotas,” Bryant said.
He also spoke bluntly of the need to get tough on adult men who have sex with girls under 16 – which is a crime – and do more to identify fathers so they share the burden of supporting their children.
Advocates talked about the need for broad community and individual efforts across schools, social services, civic clubs and churches to mentor young people, provide enrichment activities and comprehensive health education.
“There is no quick fix,” said Mike Clayborne, president of CREATE Foundation, which hosted the meeting with Families First for North Mississippi. “It’s going to take smart strategies with persistent, consistent effort.”
Nycole Campbell Lewis, who coordinates the state task force and serves on a national task force for the prevention of teen pregnancy, said there are lessons Mississippi can learn from other states that have gained more ground on reducing the numbers of teen pregnancies over the past two decades: broad community efforts that include faith-based organizations and evidence-based curriculum in schools.
“Education in the schools will be critical in conjunction with a community-based approach,” Lewis said.
Teens have to be a part of the effort to end teen pregnancy, too.
“The youth need to be in the room and their voices need to be heard,” said Lewis, noting teen leadership components of the Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi have been active in guiding mass and social media communications efforts and youth event programs.
In the region
Already there are robust efforts in Lee County and the region to address teen pregnancy. Miss Tupelo Outstanding Teen Alivia Roberts spoke Tuesday about the impact the True Love Waits program had on her.
The Boys & Girls Club of North Mississippi hasn’t had a pregnancy among its membership for the past four years, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton noted.
The Family Resource Center works to wrap support and education around young parents so they raise their children well and avoid subsequent pregnancies while they are still teens, said Christi Webb, executive director of the Family Resource Center.
“We need to talk about teen pregnancy,” Webb said. “It’s all about parenting and education.”
COMMUNITY HEALTH ADVOCACY TRAINING will be offered in Tupelo through the University of Mississippi Medical Center on Oct. 28. Call the Family Resource Center in Tupelo at (662) 844-0013.