As a writer, I meet scores of fascinating people -- some famous, mostly regular folks who have done extraordinary things. All are memorable, but few have taken up residence in my brain like 15-year-old Lizette* whom I met two years ago.
The timing of our meeting was not optimal for her. The Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) had recently placed the teen and her new-born, Jason,* into a group home.
Lizette was angry. Very angry. And distrustful of everyone -- even other girls. And no one was allowed to touch Jason.
"I told DFCS to leave me alone," she said angrily. "Jason and me were doing just fine."
I gently reminded her that she had been living alone in an empty apartment with no furniture, no electricity and no food in the cupboard. How could she feed herself to stay healthy and nurse her baby?
"They wanted to take my baby away from me and put him in a different foster home," she said loudly. "My mother ran out on my brothers and sisters. There was no way I was going to run out on my baby."
DFCS gave her one other option: She could keep Jason with her if she agreed to live in one of 12 Second Chance Homes managed by the Georgia Coalition Advocating Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP), the brainchild of its founder, actor Jane Fonda.
The transition proved harder than she imagined. After skipping more school than she attended and living without supervision, Lizette wasn't accustomed to rules. There were mandatory curfews, assigned chores, school attendance, a part-time job, plus caring for Jason. She gave her house mothers considerable grief. They answered with patience and a large dose of psychological counseling and tutoring.
When I returned two years later for a follow-up story on G-CAPP, I barely recognized Lizette. Gone was the angry snarl, the attitude and the underlying fear. Rhinestones sparkled on the rear pockets of her jeans and the word "Princess" was written in gold letters across her black t-shirt. She stood regally, obviously proud to share her successes with me. Best of all, she was holding a healthy, happy 2-year-old. When Jason's chubby arms reached towards me -- and she let me take him -- I melted.
"I'll graduate from high school this year, and I signed myself back into DFCS custody so I can go to a technical school," she said excitedly. "Will you come to my graduation?"
Lizette is only one of GCAPP's success stories. More than 350 teens and their babies have been given a second chance since 1994 when Fonda declared war on Georgia's teen pregnancy epidemic. Her calls to action were a United Nations Conference on Population and Development and a visit to the North Georgia mountains where she saw poverty at its worst.
"The problem with 'just say no,' isn't the 'no.' It's the 'just,' says Fonda, who despite her move to Hollywood remains hands-on with the organization headed by executive director Michele Ozumba.
Teen pregnancy is not a simple issue, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared it a winnable battle. They've just awarded G-CAPP a $7.5 million grant over five years to implement a community-wide initiative in Augusta (Richmond County) which has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.
Ozumba expects the expanded initiative aimed at reaching 16,000 teens before they get pregnant will produce significant results in both human and economic terms. "Teen pregnancy costs Georgia taxpayers $344 million a year," she says. "Less than one percent of the girls in our program have second babies and 100 percent remain in school. That significantly reduces the chances of their future dependency on government programs and food stamps."
Far from just a one-state issue, teen pregnancy is a significant problem throughout the U.S. G-CAPP offers a cost-effective solution.
*Not their actual names