Thursday, August 21, 2014 · 8:08 a.m.
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Across the country, girls are participating in Girls Inc. programs, inspiring them to be strong, smart and bold. (Photo: Grafix Solutions)

When faced with the sometimes awkward, always sensitive issues of sexual activity, girls in Chattanooga are learning more than to just say no.

Thanks to Girls Inc. of Chattanooga and its Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy Program, young women are thinking about the decisions involving teenage sexual activity not only through the lenses of scientifically accurate information, but also how those decisions relate to their values, goals and plans for their futures.

The national program is a set of three curriculums corresponding with different age groups and has been actively used in the Chattanooga area for more than two decades. The program will soon get a tech savvy update.

A grant of $3,540 recently awarded by The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga’s Nightingale Network will allow Girls Inc. to develop a text message-based resource through which girls can anonymously ask questions about sexual activity and receive accurate information from trained staff members.

Knowledge is power
Though a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued earlier this year detailed a drop in the national rate of teenage pregnancy to 34 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19, the U.S. still ranks highest among its peer industrialized countries for teen pregnancy.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy lists the U.S. above 16 other countries, including Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom. 

In a state-by-state comparison, Tennessee comes in at No. 10 between Alabama and South Carolina with a rate of 43.2 teen births per 1,000. In 2010, Hamilton County alone recorded 440 pregnancies among teens in the same age bracket. 

For Bea Lurie, president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, the statistics demonstrate the clear need for efforts like the Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy Program.

“If you teach kids about their bodies and understanding their sexuality and give them information, if they choose to be sexually active, they will make responsible choices,” Lurie said. “If they are forced to make decisions without information, that can lead to serious life consequences.”

Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy consists of the curriculums Growing Together for girls ages 9 to 11, Will Power/Won’t Power for girls ages 12 to 14 and Taking Care of Business for girls ages 15 to 18. Each curriculum builds on the preceding course, and all three ultimately use a locally developed program—My Girlfriend Zelda, covering anatomy, health and hygiene for girls ages 6 to 8—as a foundation.

Growing Together begins the conversation about the new feelings girls are having about the opposite sex that come with the onset of puberty. 

Will Power/Won’t Power gets into the nitty-gritty of adolescent pressures with information to dispel sexual myths and understand how the media can be negatively involved in sexualizing girls, in addition to helping girls build constructive strategies to combat peer pressure.

Taking Care of Business continues to give girls the communication tools while also exploring issues of HIV and STDs, abusive and healthy relationships, and girls’ individual goals for their future college, career and family plans.

“What I love about the program is that it’s comprehensive,” Mary Elizabeth Kyle, Girls Inc. program coordinator, said. “There is scientific information about contraception, but we also focus on the whole girl and how these issues relate to your whole life. The programs provide space for girls to talk about and explore their goals and the action steps to get there.”

Kyle added that the Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy Program also hones in on the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness in saying no. Girls learn how to confidently and firmly, but respectfully, set boundaries with their partners, thus creating mature and healthy conversations rather than confrontations.

Currently, Kyle is teaching the curriculum at the Tyner Recreational Center. Next semester, she will take the program consisting of up to 10 sessions to Brainerd and Howard high schools and the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

Woman to woman
As Kara Fagan, executive director of The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga, noted, the Girls Inc. program is a 10-point match for the Nightingale Network and The Women’s Fund pursuits.

The former organization is an initiative of the latter, developed as an avenue to engage women in the Scenic City philanthropically to further the goals of The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga.

Fagan cited the organization’s mission statement, which details its intent to improve “the lives of women and girls in [the Chattanooga] region by driving social change, providing opportunity and promoting economic self-sufficiency.” One of the avenues to reaching those goals is education—a point with which Girls Inc. is quite familiar.

In practical terms, the Nightingale Network funds local causes through a process of reviewing grant applications at the board level, narrowing down the pool to three proposals, and then holding a vote through a series of social women’s parties hosted in members’ homes.

At each gathering, women cast their vote and donate the amount of money they would spend on a typical girls' night out.

This cycle, Girls Inc. was selected out of 11 applications. The organization also recently received a grant from the Community Foundation for $17,689 toward training, outreach, transportation and other operational costs.

“We wanted to create social change for women and by women,” said Kelly Fitzgerald, who co-chairs the Nightingale Fund with Courtney Altfillisch. “We wanted to give women the opportunity to take control of their finances, to explore being philanthropic and to have the confidence to challenge the old way to doing things. The way Girls Inc. approaches their programs is about making girls more confident, which is what we are all about.”

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