Enrichment program teaches at-risk kids to aim high

February 15, 2011

Provena foundation collaboration promotes education, builds self-esteem in youth


As a freshman at Kentucky State University, 18-year-old Jaleesa Vincent is laying the groundwork for a career as a neonatal nurse practitioner. It's a lofty goal, she says, but one she feels is attainable because of a strong desire to take care of herself as well as to give back to others who may need her help.

"And also, because I love little babies," she says, then adds: "I just plan to wait until I am married to start having them."

Vincent explains that she came to that decision because of the Young Women Aware leadership program, which she began attending as a seventh-grader in her hometown of Danville, Ill. The program is a project of Provena United Samaritans Medical Center Foundation, the Danville School District, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermilion County, Ill. The Provena foundation and the YMCA of Vermilion County support a complementary program called Young Men Aware.

Both programs are similar in their mission to help youngsters to achieve three objectives: high school graduation, post-high school education or military service, and pregnancy prevention with a focus on abstinence.

Rose Henton, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermilion County, says since Young Women Aware first began in 1997 at Danville High School, more than 2,000 young women have participated and of those, only two have had a child while in school.

Jim Anderson, executive director of the Provena foundation, explains the program grew out of an initiative to counteract the county's high teen birth rate and related high-school dropout rate.

The dropout rate at Vincent's alma mater, Danville High School, is 6 percent, compared with a statewide average rate of 3.8 percent, both figures according to the Illinois State Board of Education. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, in 2006, the most recent year for published statewide health data, births to teenagers accounted for 15 percent of all births in Vermilion County, compared to 10 percent in the state. In 2009, 23.9 percent of Vermilion County residents lived in poverty, as compared to 13.3 percent of the entire population of Illinois, according to the Social Impact Research Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that drew on U.S. Census Bureau data.

While curbing teen pregnancy remains an important goal for Young Women Aware, Anderson says its main focus is "on character-building skills" such as self-esteem and empowerment as well as on making healthy lifestyle choices, which includes finishing high school and going onto college.

Engaging tweens 
"Given the results of the participants relative to their peers, (Young Women Aware) certainly has made a significant impact and continues to be quite successful," Anderson adds.

So successful, in fact, that in the fall of 2001, Young Women Aware expanded from Danville High School to two middle schools in the county, North Ridge Middle School and South View Middle School. Soon after, the Young Men Aware program was implemented in all three schools as well.

Michelle Schaumburg, program coordinator for Young Women Aware, goes to each school to meet with students for an hour every week. Typically, around 150 girls participate each academic year, though there is no cap on the number in the program. All are welcome to join.

Activities range from discussing violence prevention and health awareness to learning leadership skills to taking part in community service projects to visiting colleges. A self-defense course is on tap.

Henton of Big Brothers Big Sisters says of the enrichment program, "In many cases, we are giving these young women opportunities that they normally wouldn't have because they come from families with very limited income.

"Once, when we got back from one of our college trips, one of our girls turned to me and said, 'Now I know that I want to be a criminologist.' She had no idea the profession existed before the visit."

Positive peer pressure
Schaumburg tries to incorporate activities that the girls suggest into the program, especially during the Young Women Aware summer session, which is held three afternoons a week in June and July. "They love anything to do with fashion," Schaumburg says. "So we held a Miss Young Women Aware Pageant where we taught the girls skills such as public speaking and had them work on a talent to perform." Each girl also recited an abstinence pledge and received a silver ring engraved with the slogan "true love waits."

Henton believes part of what makes the program so successful is that so many girls take part in it. "If they are of the same mind-set, the peer pressure to do otherwise isn't so great," she says. "They get so much reinforcement from the other girls."

She and Schaumburg point out that many of the girls get little to no mentoring or leadership education at home. "They know that we believe in them," says Henton. "There may not be other adults in their lives who do, but they know we do."

Vincent says while having so many of her friends in the program was a plus, the biggest bonus was learning to believe in herself and "never giving up on my dreams." She said as much in a college essay competition sponsored by Young Women Aware and won a $1,000 scholarship.

Recruiting challenge
Anderson says that while the women's program has been highly successful, the men's has had some difficulty attracting an audience. This year, Provena switched partners from Big Brothers Big Sisters to the YMCA in the hopes of increasing attendance in the men's program.

"At the foundation, we are very results-oriented," says Anderson. "Both of these programs are dynamic. In the situation of Young Women Aware, the challenge is to broaden the audience as best we can because the message seems to be working. With Young Men Aware, that's also the case except in all capital letters."

Anderson feels that one positive step in attracting more young men is its new coordinator Jason Henton, the 24-year-old son of Rose Henton. "We found early on that it's better to have someone closer in age to the participants so the message doesn't seem like it's coming from someone who doesn't have a clue," Anderson says.

The goals of the men's program are similar to the women's, including early fatherhood prevention with an emphasis on abstinence. This year, 70 young men and boys from the three schools are engaged in activities that focus on drug and alcohol abstinence education, violence prevention and character building, with as many hands-on experiences as possible.

"We seem to be making inroads at the middle schools, where 58 boys are involved," says Jason Henton. "It's more difficult getting and keeping high school boys (in the program) because often they have after-school jobs or sports team commitments.

"Then again, the younger they participate, the more likely the program will have a positive impact to help focus their behavior."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.