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Fake Family, True Message, Peer Educators Reach Out to Memphis Youth

A mother and her two daughters sit in front of a classroom of 20 high schoolers in Southwind High School Exit Disclaimer , Memphis, Tenn. Leslie, 14, is the model student. Her sister Jamila, 16, is now regretting some very bad decisions.

By Isabel M. Estrada-Portales

A mother and her two daughters sit in front of a classroom of 20 high schoolers in Southwind High School Exit Disclaimer , Memphis, Tenn. Leslie, 14, is the model student. Her sister Jamila, 16, is now regretting some very bad decisions.

Jamila got pregnant at 14, and then discovered she had a sexually transmitted infection. The infection complicated her pregnancy because it was not treated on time. The baby was born too early. "We lost my grandson a day after he turned four months," mom said.

The family presentation took 20 minutes, and the silence in the classroom was only broken, here and there, by the sobbing of some students. Then, the real surprise came.

"So, that's not your mom?" asked a boy who was so upset with the story that he was ready to lecture Jamila on the suffering she caused. The class was shocked.

Class Room"Mom" was Cynthia Murry, faculty advisor from Lane College, Jackson, Tenn. Preconception Peer Educators Janesia Simmons, 25, played Leslie and April Nellum, 22, played the regretful Jamila.

"Basically we wanted to paint a picture," said Simmons, a master's candidate at Morgan State University, who visited students at Southwind High School Exit Disclaimer and at World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church Exit Disclaimer afterschool program. "We wanted them to know that things you do today will affect your future."

College-age peer educators, physicians and health professionals converged on Memphis for the College to Community Health Outreach Week, part of the Office of Minority Health infant mortality campaign, A Healthy Baby Begins with You.

The campaign is aimed at decreasing the infant mortality rates in the African-American community, 13.6 per thousand live births, which doubles the national average of 6.9. Memphis was selected for this outreach week due to the high rates of African American infant mortality in the state and the city.

In Memphis in 2005, 144 infants of all races and ethnicities died before reaching their first birthday, an infant mortality rate of 13.0 per 1,000 live births; this is almost twice the national rate of 6.9 per 1,000 live births. Black infants (18.5) were nearly 4 times as likely as white infants (5.2) to die during the first year of life during 2003-2005 (average).

During the week, peer educators, like Simmons and Nellum, ventured to high and middle schools to talk to students about infant mortality, preconception health and having a healthy future.

"It may not be our story, but a lot of people have these same stories and we made that clear to them- even though it's not true [for us], we represent a lot of people who this is true for," Simmons said. "We also wanted to let them know there are two ways you can go: you can go the extreme bad way of hurting yourself and there's another way, you can abstain, eat healthy and exercise and focus on your school work."

Instead of distributing handouts or lecturing, Simmons said the group knew the skit needed to be entertaining and informative, which led to students disclosing about a miscarriage and being born prematurely.

"I think they really responded well to it and I think it's mostly because of the college students that came in," said Cristy Boggan, a life-skills teacher at Southwind, who noted that infant mortality isn't always a topic on her students' minds. "I think they were really much more involved and they paid more attention. They were asking more questions than they would with just a regular speaker coming in and doing a PowerPoint."

But the excitement wasn't just from one class.

"I was just surprised how eager they were to learn about preconception health," Simmons said, adding that talking to young people about the topic is imperative.

"And I like how we do it with the preconception health or general health, because that's basically what we're talking about-eating right, exercising, taking your vitamins-and then you can slide into why is this important; why do you need to be generally healthy," she said. "And my key tag was healthy people have healthy babies. If you're healthy, most likely you're going to have a healthy baby."

Isabel M. Estrada-Portales is the Director of Communications for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail:

Content Last Modified: 7/30/2009 12:14:00 PM
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