REELEY — Until she heard her baby’s heartbeat for the first time in February, Joanna Lopez could not believe she was pregnant.
Now, the unwed 17-year-old with the expanding belly is undeniably part of Weld County’s teen birth rate statistics. And the county’s rate is nearly double the state average, according to the 2004 KidsCount in Colorado! report recently released by The Colorado Children’s Campaign in Denver.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s 2003 numbers zoom in on this statistic to show teenage Hispanics give birth at almost four times the rate of teenage whites in Weld County.
But these statistics never touched the brief birth control conversation Joanna had with her boyfriend, Luis Felipe Arellano, also 17.
The couple said they shied away from using birth control pills because that would mean visiting a doctor, something Joanna swore off doing at age 12 when her mother was diagnosed with diabetes.
“Joanna didn’t want to go to the doctor, and I didn’t want to tell her what to do,” Luis said.
As for condoms, Joanna said her girlfriends told her “some guys don’t know how to use them.”
The Weld County School District teaches abstinence only, so their choices remained hazy.
Then Joanna was pregnant and paying the consequences, which for her included dropping out of high school.
Weld County’s teen pregnancy problem is not just a Greeley problem.
At Frederick High School, the 179-member sophomore class this semester includes five pregnant students, according to Susie Daigle, the school’s resource officer.
One student, 16-year-old Brandy Lee Bruce, got pregnant last October on Homecoming night.
Like Joanna and Luis, she and her boyfriend had casually spoken of birth control.
But they didn’t know enough to make a decision.
“I think they should have told me about (birth control) instead of hiding it,” she said of the school’s sex education curriculum.
Joanna, the daughter of Texas migrant workers who settled in Greeley two years ago, said she plans to return to school this fall after the baby is born in August.
Arellano will probably keep planting onions with his family around the county and harvesting crops during the back-to-school season.
The unintended pregnancy has changed both of their lives.
Luis said he intended to visit his grandparents in Mexico next month and introduce them to Joanna until he learned she cannot travel during her third trimester.
Joanna, whose only work experience is baby-sitting, spends most of her time on the couch because she feels tired and nauseated.
“It’s lonely,” she said. “You don’t have someone to talk to all the time because your friends are busy in school. And when the baby’s born, he will be with you all the time. You can’t bring your baby to parties.”
Yet, this couple probably falls into the “lucky” category.
Besides staying together and having the support of both sets of parents, they were registered in the Nurse-Family Partnership program by a concerned community coalition. The informal coalition includes the health department, the United Way of Weld County and Weld County School District 6.
On Tuesday afternoon, Joanna — now about five months pregnant and 20 pounds heavier — lumbered up the steps from the basement room the couple shares in his parent’s home.
She was still catching her breath when she settled in on the couch and opened the white, three-ring binder full of baby-related information provided by the program’s nurse, who visits weekly.
The binder included a food guide, weekly baby developments, motherhood myths and other information geared toward having a healthy baby.
Joanna pulled her slightly crinkled, black-and-white ultrasound image dated March 7 from one of the pockets as she shared what she has been learning.
Because of the nurse visits, she said, she eats more fruit and walks with Luis around the neighborhood park at sunset most days.
These changes and others spell success to the coalition that formed about five years ago in Weld County to reach out to teenagers behind the statistics.
“At 7 a.m. in downtown Greeley, about 60 people have been coming out to talk about the problem and get creative,” said health department director Dr. Mark Wallace.
“It’s not necessarily a message focused on sex,” he continued. “It’s a message that you’re valued and that people care about your future and the choices you have.”
He said the coalition is exploring ways to present the message in culturally relevant formats, such as quinceñeras — the traditional Hispanic rite-of-passage celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. There, it makes sense to remind young women and men why it is honorable to avoid unplanned pregnancies.
To make those choices more comprehensible, the health department has spent the past 10 years developing bilingual/bicultural programming to complement pregnancy and child-care programs sponsored by the coalition.
Access to programs often begins with a question from people such as Juan López.
As a school district truancy case manager, he has lots of face-to-face contact with teenagers and has for the past three years tried to spot pregnant women to share information about prenatal and early childhood care.
“I’m in no way supporting teens getting pregnant. But when they are, what are you going to do?” he said. “I want them to have a healthy baby — not just for them, but for society. And I want them to stay in school so they can get a better job to support that baby.”
Getting a young woman to make that first appointment is critical because it fosters a healthier pregnancy and helps prevent future pregnancies, according to Vanessa Wilkins, coordinator of the health department’s Medicaid-funded Prenatal Plus program.
“A lot of these girls, they don’t see a future,” she explained. “They don’t see college, career and travel. That’s all in the movies. That’s for someone else.”
Contact with social services can change that perception and make family planning seem more important, Wilkins said.
To continue raising awareness, Weld County has coordinated several events to support The National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy on Wednesday.
Activities included a poster contest earlier this spring along a national theme, “Teen Pregnancy Prevention: Why it Matters.”
Joanna could have used the message earlier.
But she participated and won first place and $100 in the age 17 to 18 category for designing a poster — something she did mid-mornings, when she feels most energetic.
Her art showcased a poem she wrote in the seventh grade when her teenage cousin got pregnant.
They are words of warning: “... One night of pleasure, nine months of pain, three days in the hospital and a baby to name. They all say you’re cute. They all say you’re fine. But when the baby comes, they say it’s not mine.”
Joanna lives with the father of her baby, a young man who cares about her and their child.
Both know that aspect of their situation is unusual and a plus.
That doesn’t change their upcoming place in Weld County’s 2005 teen birth rate statistics.
It only gives them a better chance at sending a message to their peers and preventing another unintended pregnancy.
“I want to be a role model for the baby — to show him what we’ve gone through and what not to do,” Luis said.
National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
• Health Teen Scene health fair at the Greeley Mall
4-8 p.m. Friday, April 29
1-5 p.m. Saturday, April 30
• Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment open house
1-5 p.m. Wednesday May 4
1555 North 17th Ave.
• National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Day online quiz- cqwww.teenpregnancy.org
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at email@example.com.