Melva Thompson-Robinson has been talking to Las Vegas pastors about sex. It sounds strange, considering her ultimate goal is to reduce teen pregnancy rates in Nevada, but once you hear the plan of the director of the Center for Health Disparities Research at UNLV’s School of Community Health Sciences, it makes sense.
Thompson-Robinson is in the process of creating the Southern Nevada Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project, which is being funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health. It’s an important project, considering the state holds the No. 2 spot in the nation for teen pregnancy behind New Mexico, according to a 2010 study by the Guttmacher Institute.
But back to the pastors and sex. The goal of the project is to target black teens via black churches. African-Americans have a disproportionately higher level of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDs (although the statistics for Nevada were unavailable in the Guttmacher report). Thompson-Robinson sees churches as an ideal place to begin the outreach.
“Historically, while the African American church has been a great place to do health promotions, they’ve been a little slow on the uptake in talking about issues around sex, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy prevention, HIV prevention, AIDS, things like that,” Thompson-Robinson says. That’s where the conversations with pastors and sex come in. Because many pastors are older, Thompson-Robinson says they’re often unaware of youth issues in the community. She’s working to change that.
“I said to one pastor, ‘In order to prevent pregnancy as well as maintain their virginity, kids are having anal sex.’ The problem with that is, it may prevent pregnancy, but it puts you at high risk for HIV infection,” she says. While the pastor was aware of the sex patterns, he hadn’t considered the risk of infection, she says.
A pilot program for the Southern Nevada Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project will launch this spring at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas. Thompson-Robinson says she’s hoping to target 20 males and females ages 14 to 19 for the eight-week program. The program will instruct teens on safe sex, as well as abstinence, and educate them on STIs, HIV, AIDS and more. The goal is to create a comfortable environment where kids can ask questions and learn.
Throughout the spring, Thompson-Robinson will meet with pastors and sign up more churches. She hopes to educate nearly 100 teens in the next series of classes, which will begin Sept. 1. The program will continue for the next five years, targeting 100 to 150 teens each year. From there, Thompson-Robinson hopes to see the program take on a life of its own.
“This is not a project where UNLV is coming in and they’re running all the intervention sessions and doing all of the work,” she says. “We’re working with the community in such a way that we’re trying to make this sustainable. If we can train people in the community on how to do this intervention, our hope is that five years from now, when the money dries up, people can still carry on this intervention.”