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Pregnant Pause

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'Some people's attitude is you'll burn in hell if you have sex. That's counteractive for some kids.'

Diane Widmer,
Case Manager,
Tillamook County Health Department

So in the early 1990s, local health leaders offered adolescents special services at the Tillamook health department to get contraceptives and counseling within 48 hours. The new service replaced what had been a monthlong wait for birth control in the crowded clinic.

Cameron believes the no-wait policy--and the confidentiality of the visit--was critical in reducing the pregnancy rate.

Even though the Tillamook health department is a 45-minute trek from her home, one local teenager says it's a small inconvenience for anonymity. Sitting in the waiting room filling out a medical questionnaire about her sexual history, Emmalea, a gangling 15-year-old, says she started having sex at 11. If she bought condoms at the drugstore in the tiny town where she lives, she's certain the news would travel. "In Cloverdale, no matter what, somebody is going to find out," Emmalea says.

A few weeks ago, she got a shot of the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera after she thought she might be pregnant. Now, she's back for the required follow-up physical. "Having a baby would affect me because I want to finish being a teenager," she says. "So, I'm responsible."

Besides this speedy delivery of confidential services, clinic staff members brief young people about sexually transmitted diseases and counsel them about family-planning options and abstinence.

Diane Widmer, a case manager at the health department, says the staff tries to provide young people with the best information without being judgmental.

"Some people's attitude is you'll burn in hell if you have sex," she says, as more teenagers filter into the clinic. "That's counterproductive for some kids."

When the services for teenagers first began, the health clinic staff worked closely with the schools to spread the word. If girls were pregnant, or afraid that they might be, their school counselor could usher them directly to the health clinic to discuss family-planning options.

"It was a crucial partnership," Marvis remembers. "The school was a direct link to getting the word out about the clinic."

As the health program took off, Marvis and others began to set up a program for teenage mothers to earn their high school degree. In a separate classroom at Tillamook High School, girls learned about caring for their infants in between units on algebra and literature. The purpose was to provide a place where likely dropouts could complete school on a flexible schedule and develop career plans.

The program, now run out of a local community college, has an impressive record: Thirty-six percent of last year's graduates went to college; 91 percent got full- or part-time jobs. Graduates of the teenage-parent program are far less likely to have an additional child than those who do not participate, records show. Some of these mothers even guest-lectured in the schools as part of a revised sex education approach.

In the 1980s, Marvis says the sex education classes at school consisted mostly of lectures on anatomy and menstruation. But in the early 1990s, teachers began working more with school counselors and health officials to enhance the curriculum, incorporating role-playing and visitations by the teenage moms in the middle and high school grades.

Though the schools served as hubs of the community network, the school-clinic dispute made many residents reluctant to steer an aggressive teenage-pregnancy-prevention campaign through them. As a result, the three districts in the county stopped short of a complete overhaul of their sex education curriculum.

While the clinic was doling out prophylactics for free, George Hodgdon was busy dispensing a different message to Tillamook County teenagers--that faith in God is the most powerful contraceptive.

"What motivates a person to be sexually abstinent? A good relationship with the Lord," says Hodgdon, a devout Nazarene who has spent much of the last decade promoting a series of abstinence-education lectures and church group events for local youths.

When the clinic controversy broke, Hodgdon decided to aggressively market the abstinence message to teenagers through Tillamook County's many houses of worship. A road builder by trade, Hodgdon volunteered to lay the groundwork for a six-week guest lecture series called "Sex on the Safe Side." The sessions had such titles as: "The ABCs of Touch," designed to help teenagers recognize and repel unwanted advances; and "Media Sexploitation," an expose of how the media influence sexual behavior and attitudes.

The first series, which was held in the Tillamook High School auditorium, drew 300 students from the dozen towns in the county, about one-eighth of the area's teenage population. The ministers' association, the Kiwanis Club, and even the health department supplied volunteers. It was universally applauded.

Hodgdon says the collaboration was smooth because all the key people in town knew each other. Cameron and Hodgdon's families used to go trout fishing on the Trask River together when they were in junior high school. So a friendly call for assistance didn't require a formal introduction.

In addition to the popular seminars, Hodgdon and some local ministers also bolstered after-school options by adding to the existing array of youth activities at churches.

After-school game nights, the latest church offering, are well attended. On a recent school night, the Church of the Nazarene in Tillamook is filled with adolescent laughter.

Every Wednesday evening here, boys and girls gather to engage in hours of good, clean mayhem. In a small gym off the main chapel, teams of teenagers drag each other across the wooden floor on blankets as a coach signals the start of the "chariot races" with a piercing whistle.

Many teenagers say these activities help support young men and women who have chosen to postpone sexual involvement but often feel compelled to experiment.

"A lot of kids who are pressured turn around and have sex," says 15-year-old Heather McVay, shouting above the din. "But being involved in sports and youth group takes a lot of your time."

'What motivates a person to be sexually abstinent? A good relationship with the Lord.'

George Hodgdon,
Coordinator, Church Activities

Trenda Fletcher, a 17-year-old senior, says when she feels such peer pressure, she finds comfort in the Bible. Turning to a familiar passage, she reads: "The marriage bed should be kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all sexually immoral."

The popularity of the youth groups and the seminars was a sign to the community that the churches' participation was crucial in the fight against teenage pregnancy. It was an ideal way, many believed, to reach the youngest teenagers and especially those who may not yet be sexually active.

The church activities were not appealing, however, to those young people who eschewed both religion and the message of abstinence until marriage.

When teenagers here are asked why they think most of their peers are having sex, they routinely respond with the same phrase: "There's nothing to do here."

The string of tiny towns offers little entertainment other than going to parties, smoking marijuana, and fooling around, many of them say.

The stunning vistas of mountain peaks overlooking the shimmering blue bay are lost on many young people who pine for CD stores, McDonald's, and video arcades. Fred Meyer, Tillamook's lone department store, is the closest thing here to a shopping mall.

"It's boring," says Cody Martin, an 18-year-old from Cloverdale, who points out that the nearest multiplex theater is an hour away. A typical weekend scenario goes like this: "On Friday and Saturday, you party and get drunk and have sex," says Cody, whose girlfriend is expecting a baby in August.

To answer this cry to increase young people's entertainment options, several community leaders in the early 1990s decided to devise some wholesome distractions for local youths.

The Tillamook County YMCA bolstered its sports programs for adolescent girls who were traditionally underserved in community sports programs. The YMCA started girls' basketball leagues and promoted them on radio and in the local papers. It added a girls' softball league for 9- to 11- year-olds and fast-pitch practice for high school girls. In four years, the YMCA's participation rate doubled.

Mike Ellis, the YMCA's executive director, as well as the Tillamook school board chairman, says the program had multiple benefits.

"Studies show kids are most at risk of getting into trouble between the hours of 3 and 6, whether it's teen pregnancy or drugs or gangs," says Ellis. "This occupies that time."

By 1994, with all the community efforts in full swing, the teenage-pregnancy rate hit bottom. Once second from the top, Tillamook was now ranked 36 out of 36 counties in the state.

State and national child-health advocates heaped praise on the community leaders. The National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy was considering Cameron and the county for a prestigious award.

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