In the South Bronx, inside the International Community High School, Johnny, Brayan, Khady, Genesis and Francisco link arms and joke and giggle and write out lists of what they admire about each other. Sometimes they hug.
They are working-class kids, ninth-graders navigating the shoals of adolescence. Each is a volunteer in a program, the Teen Outreach Program [otherwise known as Changing the Odds at Morris Heights Health Center] aimed at decreasing the likelihood that they will become teenage parents.
They hear no didactic lectures and see no wagging fingers. There is patient trust-building, and an insistent message: It is hard enough to escape poverty’s fierce gravitational pull; to add to that the grueling business of raising a baby makes it harder still.
“You try to give them a safe place to talk,” says Tatiana Alejo, 26, a counselor with the program, which shows great promise. “They have so many social pressures. And we never, ever, downgrade or shame.”
“It’s so much more complicated than telling a teen: ‘Don’t do it’ or ‘Your boyfriend will leave you,’ ” said Estelle Raboni, Program Director for the Morris’ Heights Teen Outreach Program. “Fear cannot motivate a girl who already feels alienated.”