Our 2011 production of The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls, enabled WAM Theatre to donate $1,750 to The Berkshire United Way Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative! Over the past five years that project has grown to become the Face the Facts Coalition, still helmed by Kristine Hazzard, the President and CEO of Berkshire United Way. We caught up with Kristine recently to find out how our gift helped bring the Coalition where it is today and what’s next for them.
WAM Theatre: What spurred you to take action on the issue of teen pregnancy?
Kristine Hazzard: In 2009 we worked with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Berkshire Benchmarks to develop a report on the successes and challenges in our community. Based on the Department of Public Health’s data on teen births in Berkshire County, especially in our two urban centers of Pittsfield and North Adams, we knew we had a real problem. Our teen birth rate was way above the state’s teen birth rate. We immediately brought a bunch of people together to develop strategies to address the situation and also apply for a federal grant to support the initiative. While we didn’t get the grant, coming together provided a sense of urgency and provided us with the organizational structure and energy to move forward.
WAM: So WAM was an early supporter of this project?
Kristine: The timing of the gift from WAM Theatre was just perfect. Your gift funded vital consultations from the Mass Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies, and enabled us to hire BookMarc Creative to create a name, logo and marketing materials which raised local visibility and awareness of the issue. But WAM gave us more than money. We really value our ongoing relationship and our continued collaboration and discussion about how to empower girls to make educated choices about their bodies and their futures.
WAM: Have you seen a change in the teen pregnancy rate since you started?
Kristine: According to data from the MA Department of Public Health, Berkshire County’s teen birth rate came down 50% between 2009-2012, and now the overall County rate is far lower than it was and more in line with the state figures. So we’re off to a great start but there is still work to do, particularly in Pittsfield and North Adams where the rates continue to be above the state and county rates. Getting the word out and convincing people that we can do this has been a challenge. People say that teen pregnancy, and unplanned pregnancy at any age, is a problem that’s been with us forever and is never going to change, but we have proven them wrong.
WAM: Fifty percent is an amazing drop! We are honored to be supporters of such a successful initiative that is really making an impact on the lives of girls locally.
Kristine: We can’t take all the credit, the national rate has been falling too. I hope this means that things are changing for young people all over the country. The increase in access to accurate information on contraception and consent through social media has been phenomenal. We’ve added to the message with billboards, posters in all schools, radio PSAs, and ads on Pandora targeted at males to really get the message out. One of our major functions is connecting people to services and support. Our effort involves a whole coalition of people and organizations.
WAM: The word “coalition” is now part of your name. Who are you collaborating with and what are you focusing on currently?
Kristine: We collaborate with representatives from business, education, healthcare, and social service agencies, focusing on access to reproductive healthcare, sex education, public awareness, building youth aspirations, and supporting parents as the primary sexuality educator for their children. We have worked with Tapestry Health to increase their hours and visibility and we are delighted that they now have a clinic on the MCLA campus. We met with pediatricians and OB/GYNs to encourage them to become advocates for long-acting, reversible contraception (LARC). The new Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) are nothing like the ones from a generation ago when there were some scary health consequences, they are much safer now. We are committed to expanding the use of evidence-based curriculums for sex education and have organized trainings, including financing 25 youth workers to be certified sexuality educators and fifteen health educators to work in and outside of school using the Making Proud Choices and Get Real curriculums. We provide the funds to bring experts here so people who want and need training don’t have to travel to get it. We have advocated with school districts, both the administration and elected school committees to expand sex education in schools which has been difficult in these times of tight school budgets, so we have also connected community providers to the schools to ensure sex education is available to youth.
We engaged Planned Parenthood League of MA (PPLM) to provide “Let’s Be Honest” training locally, this is a program for parents so that whole families can come together to support healthy choices surrounding sex and sexuality. We received input from youth that they needed information at a younger age so we identified PPLM’s “Get Real” program for 6th-9th graders as an excellent source of information and engagement. We were delighted when the Pittsfield public schools voted to pilot the program, it was also rewarding when the announcement in the Berkshire Eagle about the pilot garnered so many positive comments online.
WAM: So you at Berkshire United Way are really focusing on training and education in collaboration with other agencies to get the word out.
Kristine: All these programs have as their goal building community aspirations for our young people and encouraging them to develop life plans. We fund a ton of agencies that do youth work to help build those aspirations and increase the sense of hope and possibility for our young people. As we decrease teen pregnancy rates we also increase high school and college graduation rates. We’re really proud of the role we’ve played in getting people throughout the County to unite in this effort, and we want to ensure that it continues, so we recently brought in a trainer from PPLM to train coalition members on advocacy so they could spread the word even further. Together, we are determined to reach our goal of reducing teen births to Berkshire County 15-19 year-old females by another 50% by 2020.