Kyrieale Thomas, 16, was a shy, soft-spoken girl with only a few friends before she started going to a PEARLS for Teen Girls program in January. After her first meeting she noticed how nice and friendly the other girls were, which was a change for Thomas.
“I was so used to seeing girls not get along,” she said. “It was weird for me at first.”
Thomas said she has more confidence in herself since joining the program. She said the program coordinators have become her trusted friends and have helped her make positive decisions about her future.
“Everything about the program brings me so much joy,” Thomas said. “It means a lot to me.”
PEARLS for Teen Girls is one of 12 organizations funded by United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County’s Healthy Girls Initiative. PEARLS has 30 program sites and 45 groups, with 10 to 25 girls in each.
Other organizations funded by this initiative include Aurora Health Care, Inc., COA Youth and Family Centers, Diverse and Resilient, IndependenceFirst, Inc., Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth, Inc., Neu-Life Community Resource Center, New Concept Self Development Center, The Parenting Network, Pathfinders, United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) and Walker’s Point Youth & Family Center.
PEARLS uses the Making Proud Choices! education program, which teaches young African-American, Hispanic and white adolescents, ages 11-13, about sexual health, the body and making healthy choices about sexual activity. The curriculum provides comprehensive information on how HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are contracted, and includes information about contraception and abstinence as pregnancy prevention tactics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The most reliable ways to avoid transmission of STDs are to abstain from sexual activity, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.”
PEARLS also teaches girls about what it means to love themselves and believe their life has a purpose.
Tamara Key, director of program services at PEARLS for Teen Girls, said the girls set goals for themselves throughout the year, on issues such as academic achievement and building healthier relationships.
“We want the girls to feel empowered to make positive decisions,” she said.
Each group typically has a program coordinator, a junior coordinator, who is a college student, and peer facilitators. They work as a team to deliver the curriculum to participants.
“Watching the girls gain self-confidence and blossom is the most beautiful thing to see,” said Melanie Amini-Hajibashi, a program coordinator at PEARLS.
PEARLS has six core values: Personal responsibility, empathy, awareness, respect, leadership and support. Amini-Hajibashi said she believes strongly in the values “and I want to teach girls to believe in them, too.”
Key said the program has a 99.9 percent success rate for preventing pregnancy among girls who participate in PEARLS.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the total number of births to teens aged 17 and under dropped below 300 for the first time in Milwaukee history in 2014. In 2014, the overall teen birthrate in Milwaukee was 23.7 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 17, while the rate for black teens is 27 per 1,000 and Hispanic teens is 25.5 per 1,000.
Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, said the Milwaukee teen birth rate was among the highest in the country when the United Way initiative to reduce teen pregnancy, particularly among blacks and Hispanics, began in 2006.
Community organizations, local schools and faith-based organizations have contributed to the program’s progress.
Angresano said the program sites are located in communities serving young adults who are most at risk.
United Way is planning to step up its efforts in the Latino community on the South Side during the next year, Angresano said. UMOS Latina Resource Center, 802 W. Historic Mitchell St., is a confirmed program site. The program Safe Dates will educate middle and high school-age Hispanic girls and boys about preventing dating violence, gender stereotyping and creating stronger communication skills.
Angresano said United Way’s goal is to cut the teen pregnancy rate in half by 2023.
“Nationally the teen birth rate has decreased incredibly,” she said, “but what’s even more impressive is the teen birth rate here in Milwaukee has gone down faster.”