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Pregnant Pause

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Research has shown that early childbearing often threatens the young mothers' education and economic opportunities.

Outside observers wondered at the alchemy that had transformed the county's contentious players into a harmonious coalition with a common purpose.

But as people cheered, the pregnancy rate, which the community had been tracking religiously, began to climb back up.

Local leaders here have found it easier to identify tangible evidence of their successes than root out the source of their failures. But a common explanation for the increase is that after all the accolades, people became complacent. In the late 1980s, "everybody was getting on the bandwagon and was fired up to get their hands dirty," says Hodgdon. "I guess when people thought the problem was taken care of, they backed off and got real passive."

Cameron and others say another factor was the loss of several prominent church leaders who helped cement the original coalition. No charismatic leaders immediately stepped in to replace them when they moved on to new congregations.

Some people in the county speculated that more girls were getting pregnant because they had fewer pregnant teenagers around them as visual deterrents.

In a modest house at the edge of town, Cristine Clapp, 18, sits on a rocking chair cuddling her 3-month-old son, Devon, just up from his afternoon nap. Across the room, her 16-year-old sister, Stacy, is coaxing her 3-month-old baby girl to burp.

The teenagers, who live at home with their parents, have the weary demeanor of sleep-deprived new moms.

"I love Devon, but it's really hard to take care of him," moans Cristine, as the infant squeals. "If people know how hard it was to have a kid, they wouldn't do it."

Devon's father, slumped in a chair nearby, says he would have preferred to wait to be a dad. "I just wish I would have been older," says 19-year-old Tim McCoog.

Though the Clapp girls say they often feel self-conscious when they walk around town with their babies, stigmatizing young mothers isn't going to be much of a deterrent, they argue. It may have worked in the 1950s when being a teenage parent was such a cultural no-no that pregnant girls were shipped off to their relatives in shame to have their children.

But these young parents say a more effective way to lower the pregnancy rate is to address the teenage drug problem.

Marijuana use among teenagers here and across the country has been rising for years, and alcohol consumption has remained high. Stacy says she was drunk and high on marijuana when she had sex.

While the substance-abuse issues are relevant, other factors are equally responsible for the creeping rise in the teen-pregnancy rate, many community leaders say.

Elaine Hopson, one of the three school superintendents in the county, says sex education courses often have not been effective because many teachers are uncomfortable with the subject. It's not material they were trained to teach, says Hopson, who was hired in 1993.

"No one gets in a twit about the digestive tract, but when you are talking about sex, it's a different ball game," she says.

"To some teachers, using the word penis is a quantum leap."

That discomfort is common. In fact, many experts suggest that America's reluctance to have a frank public dialogue about sex and it's consequences, while sexual images abound in the media, is one of the main reasons why the United States has the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the industrialized world.

But Hopson and others say the pregnancy-prevention effort also lagged in Tillamook County because people were ultimately exhausted after years of constant work, most of it performed by volunteers.

"People got burned out and couldn't keep up the high intensity," says Dr. Paul Betlinski, a family practice physician in the health department.

But national experts point out that it often takes more than vigilance to alter teenagers' behavior.

A certain percentage of girls who become pregnant have been raped or coerced, they say. High teenage-pregnancy rates are also associated with poverty and the lack of educational opportunities. Research shows that the better adolescents feel about school or their work, the less they are inclined to start a family.

"If you could change the labor market and education and employment opportunities, you would have a larger effect that would be easier to sustain," says Kristin Moore, the president of Child Trends, a Washington-based research group.

In the past few months, leaders in Tillamook have begun to revive their campaign. Because the community has no public transportation, and many adolescents were unable to make their way to the health clinic, the county hired Hannah Cavanaugh, an AmeriCorps worker, to shuttle young people there in her car one night a week. Clad in a sweatshirt and long skirt, the freckle-faced 21-year-old fits right in with her adolescent clients.

"They feel pretty comfortable talking to me," says Cavanaugh as she ushers tonight's crew in for a checkup.

Cavanaugh says that despite the recreational options already in place, Tillamook County teenagers continue to gripe about the lack of exciting entertainment possibilities. Consequently, a group of parents who run a local recreation center decided this spring to open their doors to youths two afternoons a week.

One recent Monday afternoon at the youth center in Nehalem, a remote village in the north end of the county, three high school boys practice jump shots on a indoor basketball court as the rain puddles in the grass outside.

Next to the gym, the center's main hall is decorated with bright murals and equipped with a VCR, a stereo system, a bank of board games, and a pool table. The youths can buy 50-cent burritos and licorice for a nickel.

"We wanted to give kids something positive to do because they end up drinking a lot," says Susan Hills, who runs the center.

This year, the center began to offer something more to teenagers than Monopoly and chocolate, however. When she's not transporting teenagers to the health department, Cavanaugh dispenses free condoms to young people at the center who ask for them. She stashes the prophylactics in a sparkly black velvet bag behind the refreshment table.

As he shoots baskets, 17-year-old Chad Winfrey says that having contraceptives available at the center is a good idea. "People are going to have sex if they want to. You're not going to stop them," says the young man in mid-dribble. "I'm going to grab a couple of condoms before I go."

Tillamook's school-based programs are also due for a makeover, school officials say. Hopson is seeking funds from the state for her 2,300-student district to start an abstinence-based sex education program for 6th and 7th graders. The program uses older students as mentors to help preteens resist pressures to become sexually active.

'If people know how hard it was to have a kid, they wouldn't do it.'

Cristine Clapp

The program, called STARS, is being championed by Sharon Kitzhaber, the wife of Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, a Democrat.

The first lady, talking from her Portland office, says the education effort is a bargain when the price of doing nothing is considered.

Kitzhaber estimates that teenage pregnancy costs the state $200 million each year in welfare, prison, and lost labor costs.

"I decided I wanted to do early intervention because once a teen is in trouble, it's hard to turn them around," she says.

As Hopson speeds through a forested highway to a school board meeting, she seems confident that the county will win the STARS grant and pull the rate back down.

Whipping past groves of trees, her hand gripping the wheel of her Chevy Blazer, she recalls stories of Tillamook residents who have overcome difficult odds.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Hopson remembers, during the Tillamook Burn, hundreds of acres of the Coastal Range Forest went up in smoke after a logging crew accidentally sparked a fire. In the early 1950s, people from across the county descended on the forest for weeks in a massive tree-planting expedition.

And a year and a half ago, when the county was hit with a deluge that washed out the main highway and submerged it in mud for months, residents helped farmers move cattle to higher ground and sandbagged their neighbors' houses.

But reducing the teen-pregnancy rate, Hopson knows, is a little trickier than staving off a flood: You can never stop sandbagging, she says.

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