In 2005, the New Mexico Community Foundation with the purpose of identifying the social problems of Doña Ana County, sponsored a series of community meetings. One of the alarming statistics brought to all of us at the meetings was the number of teen pregnancies in the county, placing us as having the highest rate among counties in New Mexico, and New Mexico had the highest rate in the US.

After having been in public school teaching and administrative positions for 38 years I immediately thought, “What happens to all the children from these pregnancies especially when many of the mothers were below 16 including some 13- and 14-year-olds.” This thought helped motivate me to contact many people who had been at the meetings to help form the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Work Group in 2006.

We collected 15 individuals from the fields of health, education, social services and other citizens who had an interest in addressing teen pregnancy. I was elected to serve as chair of TPPWG. In 2006, we organized to meet monthly, drew up bylaws, elected officers and developed strategies for approaching how we could assist in reducing the teen birth rate in the county. Our early meetings produced two areas of concern: The Las Cruces Public Schools were using the Abstinence Only sex education approach and the few school-based health centers were not able to work on family planning with students.

In 2007 we approached the LCPS Board of Education to adopt comprehensive sex education so that students would be given a total picture of the reproductive process and discussions on birth control. Also, in 2007 we worked with the LCPS Board of Education on adopting a policy to allow the school-based health centers to do family planning with students including implementation of birth control. These actions created much community interest but the Board of Education was progressive enough to see the benefits of students learning more about their bodies and not having unintended pregnancies.

Gadsden High School had worked with the Department of Health in family planning at a school-based health center prior to starting the process in Las Cruces. So by 2008 we were meeting with success in beginning efforts to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in Doña Ana County.

My public school background kept me wanting to improve the teaching of sex education in our county and the state, and I approached state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia about working with our Teen Pregnancy Prevention Work Group on sponsoring legislation to make the teaching of health as a graduation requirement. This would include comprehensive sex education. She introduced the bill in 2008 and it passed in 2010 with Governor Bill Richardson signing it into action.

 The success of the first five years of TPPWG helped us advocate for establishing school-based health centers in every high school in Doña Ana County. This would mean that in addition to a school nurse, each high school would have a clinic with qualified medical providers to offer comprehensive health care including mental health professionals. Students now had a place to go to for medical problems, family planning and mental health issues with their privacy being protected. No student can be turned away because of finances, which assists us with the problems of poverty in our county.

At the present time, Ben Archer Health Center and La Clinica de Familia managed the 10 health centers in Las Cruces, Gadsden and Hatch. Ben Archer in the 2016-17 school year had 6,608 student visits; 48 percent of the visits were for mental health issues and 15 percent for family planning.

The biggest success is the 60.4 percent decrease in the teen birth rate for 15- to 17-year-olds from 2007-2016. We know there is a national trend showing a decrease but it is important that Doña Ana County moved from the highest rate in New Mexico in 2005 to number 18 out of the 33 counties in 2016.

Since I have been chair of TPPWG for all 13 years of its existence I have had the opportunity to meet outstanding people who have made a success of advocating for the youth of this county. My hat is off to all of them!

This week’s SUCCESS Snapshot is written by Earl Nissen, a retired educator who is originally from Ohio. He has worked in New York, Nevada and New Mexico over the course of his 38 years as an educator. For 14 years he was a professor for Doña Ana Community College. For the past eight years he has been the chairman of the Health & Human Services committee for the City of Las Cruces. Nissen has been an involved with the SUCCESS Partnership Leaders Circle member for the past four years.