Identifying those "at-risk" a key to preventing teen pregnancy
Sometimes it’s best to smother the fire before there are flames.
As director of a teen pregnancy prevention program, Bret Stephenson spends most of his time doing just that.
Stephenson, of the Tahoe Youth and Family Services, heads up the Mentors Plus program.
The program, which is funded through grants at the state level, uses a mentoring situation in hopes of preventing pregnancy of “at-risk” middle school children.
Stephenson said “at-risk” can mean different things.
“At-risk is anyone coming from a family situation where there is divorce, a single parent, substance abuse or poverty,” he said. “It means anyone who is at risk of getting into trouble, not somebody who has already been in trouble. There are different programs out there that deal with that.”
The real trick to making the mentoring program work is in Stephenson’s matchmaking abilities.
“It takes a while to build a relationship and we try to look at which kid will make the best match with which grown up,” he said. “It’s really difficult.”
Stephenson’s matchmaking pulled through for Anthony Rabinowitz, a ski instructor, who became a mentor last spring to a 12-year-old boy from a single-parent home.
“In this situation, his mother is conscientious but she is a single parent who works and goes to school,” Rabinowitz said. “He’s been staying out of trouble on his own and we’re just making sure that he stays out of trouble in the future.”
Stephenson said the mentor’s purpose is to provide a neutral figure for the teens to talk to – someone the teens can trust and rely on.
“We don’t want (the mentors) to be mini-counselors,” he said. “We just want them to spend time with each other, be consistent and persistent – that’s why this works.”
Rabinowitz said they spend most of their time together playing video games, going out for pizza and doing homework. They also practice Judo, a form of martial arts, together.
He said it was a perfect match from the beginning.
“He was real receptive and he sucked up any attention I could give him,” he said. “And I really enjoy the time we spend together too.”
Shari Young’s mentoring situation was much different.
Young, a tutor and adjunct faculty member at Lake Tahoe Community College, was a mentor last year to a child who was sometimes homeless.
“The family moved from motel to motel during the week,” she said. “When the rates shot up over the weekend, the parents would live out of their car and the older kids were left to fend for themselves – they would stay at a friend’s house or sit on the steps at the casinos.”
Their time spent together was focused less on having fun and more on homework. She also went to her eighth-grade graduation.
“The parents were unable to attend because they didn’t know about it,” she said. “So I got dressed up, went to her graduation and took her to lunch afterwards.”
Young’s student moved away from the area in July when her parents went into hiding for legal reasons.
She said the experience was emotionally taxing but worth it.
“You can’t save the universe,” she said. “You can only improve the corner you’re in.”
Stephenson said the mentors don’t fit a certain mold. Instead, they come from all walks of life and range in age from 20 to 60 years old.
Despite their varied backgrounds, he said the some 13 mentors in the program have one trait in common.
“They are all there to give something back,” Stephenson said.
To become a mentor Stephenson asks for a commitment of two hours per week for at least a year. Mentors must pass a background check and attend a training session through the Tahoe Youth and Family Services. Call Bret Stephenson for more details at (530) 541-2445.
“I don’t have anybody in the wings,” he said. “I’ve got a list of kids and no grown ups.”
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Tickets are available for the Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra’s 20th anniversary celebration raffle this week.