Estelle Raboni does not just talk to Bronx, New York teens about teen pregnancy prevention. She and her staff fold the importance of avoiding teen pregnancy into the larger path young people need to take to achieve a better, middle-class life. But there is a powerful reason why these mostly low-income students listen to Raboni, and take her life-lessons to heart.
“I was born poor,” says the director of the “Changing the Odds Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program,” out of the Morris Heights Health Center. Many well-meaning teachers or adults who work in after-school programs in the Bronx, New York, come from middle-class backgrounds, Raboni explains, and might not understand the challenges many of these young students face. Raboni does.
“When we talk to these teens, it is very important to have a ‘body-memory’ of what it’s like not have a washer to wash clothes, or only have one set of clothes, or have no food,” says this dynamic, intelligent New Yorker, who grew up in a a tenement apartment with no heat or hot water. “I used to iron my bed so I could stay warm,” recalls Raboni, whose mother immigrated from the Dominican Republic and experienced much hardship for many years.
Raboni, who persevered academically and went on to earn a Master’s in public health, is clear-eyed about the need for programs such as Changing the Odds. “All my kids (in the program) are intelligent, but there are lots of rules in middle-class society you don’t learn when you’re poor,” explains Raboni. She tells them straight – poverty is a ‘marker’ which can hold teens back.
Raboni tells teens that in order to succeed, they have to learn to do some ‘code-switching.’ “The way you dress or talk with your buddies on the street is not the way you conduct yourself in a job interview,” Raboni explains.
It is in this larger context that Raboni created “Changing the Odds Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.” She places facilitators “who look and talk like the kids” in 9 high schools and three middle schools. The teens sign up to attend sessions twice a week during the entire school year, and Raboni says this is crucial.
“We help these children with the most important lesson – life skills. It takes time.” Many teens tend to think short-term, Raboni explains, and do not see the link between risky sexual behavior, skipping school here and there, and a diminished economic future for themselves and their children if they get pregnant and drop out of school. The program gets the teens involved in community service, where they realize their behavior can have positive outcomes.
Raboni says programs like these are more important than ever. “Schools used to make you ‘acculturated,’ for lack of a better world,” she states, saying this is not the case anymore. “The emphasis now is on passing tests, but they don’t provide life or social skills. If you want to impact the lives of young people in poverty, and have them achieve greatness, you have to provide them with these tools,” says Raboni.
The Dominican-American director also uses her public health experience to make teens connect the dots through real-world outcomes. “If you delay pregnancy, graduate high school and have at least one year of college, you are basically set in terms of health outcomes,” Raboni says. To get there, though, it is important to recognize the strong connection between low literacy skills and teen pregnancy.
“When young people have low education levels, they have basically been set up to fail,” explains Raboni, saying the likelihood of getting pregnant before graduation is very tied to a youth’s education level.
Raboni is now extending the program to reach immigrant Latino teens in Spanish, as well as special education students. Her mission? While she tells teens there is a “steep learning curve” to achieve prosperity and reach the middle class, it can be done, and she is proof.
“Many of our teens have a dream, but they do not know how to get there,” Raboni says. “We provide them a look into a world they don’t get to see – there is a path, and you need to be able to adapt and learn to get the dream you want.”