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Making Healthy Decisions: WHS Teen Outreach
By Kevin Brown


“I don’t see Teen Outreach as a job. It’s very much a mission and my focus is to teach young people to develop respect for themselves,” says Mary Jo Podgurski, RNC, Ed.D., CSE, CSC, when she describes the teen group she founded in Washington, Pa., in 1988.

Formed in partnership with the Washington Health System (WHS), Teen Outreach has served over 230,000 teens from fourth to twelfth grade in four western Pennsylvania counties since its founding 31 years ago. Today, the organization operates seven programs designed to provide support and education to teens and guide them in making healthy decisions.

“I think that self-worth, which is the cornerstone of self-esteem, is what helps young people make healthy decisions,” she explains as the philosophy of Teen Outreach and its programs.

Lowering Teen Pregnancy
Teen Outreach grew out of Dr. Podgurski’s efforts in the 1970’s to lower the teen pregnancy rate by volunteering to help pregnant teens. As a nurse and childbirth educator, she taught young people how to have their babies. Those efforts eventually became the Pregnant and Parenting Teens program. While volunteering at Trinity High School in 1987, a guidance counselor suggested that she teach the kids not to have sex in the first place. So, she developed a sex education program for teens.

“I partnered with WHS in 1988 to create Teen Outreach as a sex education program. I started teaching at Trinity High School and, by the end of 1990, I had ten schools. It just snowballed,” she says.

The results were resounding. “In our target group of 15 to 17-year-olds, the teen pregnancy rate was 39 per thousand in 1989 and, 25 years later, it was 12 per thousand,” Dr. Podgurski explains.

Teens Teaching Teens
As Teen Outreach continued to grow in the local schools in Washington County, Dr. Podgurski realized that the best person to teach a teen is a teen. “You can sit in front of an auditorium and tell them not to use drugs and not to have sex and not to bully and that’s lovely, but did you connect these kids with other kids and teach them how to teach, and how to be role models? That is when the difference happens; that’s when behavior changes,” she says.

In 1995, she started Peer Education. “When an adult teaches, it’s a whisper, but when a teen teaches, it’s a shout,” is her favorite quote when describing the powerful impact of teens teaching teens. “If I can get a 16-year-old teaching a 14-year-old, that couple of years makes a big difference in terms of power,” she says. Since starting the Peer Education program, Dr. Podgurski and her staff have trained over 15,000 teens as peer educators.

Listening to Teens
Listening to what teens have to say is a cornerstone of her philosophy in working with teens. In 1997, she started the Adolescent Advisory Board which comprises students from 10 schools across Washington County. “Each school sends me six to ten kids and we meet once a month at WHS - that’s 60 to 80 kids at the meetings,” she notes.

The Board decides on a theme each year and uses that theme to guide its activities, culminating in an Annual Youth Conference. “In 2016, our theme was ‘civil discourse’ due to the presidential election that year,” says Dr. Podgurski. “Each school represented on the Board was tasked with creating their own pretend country, along with a type of government, and a bill of rights or a constitution, a flag, and a budget, among other tasks,” she explains.

Educating through Drama
Real Talk Performers is a program of Teen Outreach that allows teens from 9th to 12th grade write and produce an original educational drama based on the Adolescent Advisory Board annual theme. “Real Talk Performers is one of the few educational drama groups in the county,” Dr. Podgurski notes. “They take on some controversial topics. We help them, but they do all the writing and directing.”

Finding Common Ground
The Common Ground Teen Center opened in 2008 and, after being in two previous locations, is now located at 92 North Main St. in Washington, Pa. Open Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m., it’s run by teens. “We have peer educator meetings and we have activities such as Movie Night, which our teens plan. Our next activity is Bob Ross Night where the kids are going to watch Bob Ross on TV and paint,” she says.

Educating for Healthy Outcomes
ECHO, or Educate Children for Healthy Outcomes, is a program that Dr. Podgurski started in 1999 with the intention of lowering teen pregnancy. ”That was my original intention,” Dr. Podgurski explains. “It was only later that I decided I wanted to work with the whole child and the self-worth/respect component which I still believe makes all the difference in behavior – alcohol, sexuality or bullying – whatever you’re trying to influence with the young person.”

The first clients of ECHO were the younger siblings of teen parents. “My social work staff took over mentoring those kids, seeing them weekly and teaching them to how to make healthy decisions. In the first ten years, we saw 721 at-risk young women who might have gotten pregnant. Of that total, only three became pregnant,” she explains.

Dr. Podgurski’s team discovered unexpected outcomes. “ECHO kids being mentored by my staff stayed in school longer, they had better grades, they graduated, they didn’t get involved in drugs and alcohol and a lot of that was because of the mentorship, the one-on-one,” she says. In order to expand the program, they introduced volunteer lay mentors to take over the work of the social work staff.

A new effort just launched is “Debate without Hate”, an online game created by teens to encourage civil discourse. The game’s website, www.debatewithouthate.com, lists an overview of the game, and provides instructions and content for debates along with suggestions for keeping the debate civil.

Planning for the Future
As for future plans for Teen Outreach, Dr. Podgurski says, “My long-term plan is to make sure Teen Outreach goes on beyond me. The work we do is vital. Young people matter. Their voices are important and I want young people to have the ability to not only find their own self-worth, but use their own gifts to help with other things like how to be good citizens.”

For information about Teen Outreach youth programs, contact Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski at podmj@healthyteens.com or call the Teen Outreach office at (724) 222-2311.

Teen Outreach is supported by donations and grants. Please help local teens by making a donation at www.whs.org/givenow.



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