PITTSFIELD

Today is the 13th annual National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and what better time to highlight the countywide community coalition, Face the Facts: Reduce Teen Pregnancy, which is working to reduce the teen birth rate in Berkshire County by 50 percent by 2020. Achieving this goal will dramatically impact our community's health and vibrancy.

Face the Facts: Reduce Teen Pregnancy is a countywide coalition of local businesses, health and human service organizations, school districts, youth service providers, concerned citizens and most importantly youth. I applaud the youth of Berkshire County for taking an active role to reduce teen pregnancy. And, we're making an impact!

While the most recent teen birth data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is from 2010, we have partnered with the local hospitals throughout Berkshire County to gather 2011 and 2012 data and the evidence indicates that since 2009 the Berkshire County teen birth rate has declined 52.6 percent.

This decline is due in part to the work of the coalition, which has been supporting service providers in implementing evidence-based strategies, raising community awareness, providing trainings for youth workers, health care providers and parents, advocating for access to reproductive health care and working with schools to adopt effective, comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education curriculums.


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There's more to do: In 2012, there were 58 births among 15- to 19-year-olds in Berkshire County, a number that is still far too high.

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Last Thursday, we held a free community screening of the documentary "Let's Talk About Sex." This film looks at how American attitudes toward adolescent sexuality impact today's teenagers.

It's important for parents to know that if we're not talking about sexuality with our kids, there are innumerable other outlets for them to get information from, like the media, Internet or their friends, and they may not be getting the facts from these sources.

We need to encourage our youth to seek information and support from their parents first. Trust me, I know how uncomfortable these conversations can be. My husband and I raised two children, and looking back, I realize that we weren't always as approachable or knowledgeable as we could have been in broaching the subject of sex and sexuality with our kids.

We tried to be available to our children and talked openly about healthy relationships, communication and most importantly, aspirations for their futures and what obstacles could derail them from achieving their goals. When appropriate, we discussed the toughest topic, sexual activity, contraception and protection from sexually transmitted diseases. It can be a difficult conversation to start, but it's one that you and your family will be much better, and stronger, for having together.

Our community has rallied around this issue. Our county's teen birth rate has been an issue for years and now we have evidence that we can actually effect real change if we work together.

Teen pregnancy impacts our entire community. The teen parent and their child are both more likely to struggle in school and less likely to achieve financial stability. Children of teen parents are less likely to be reading proficiently by third grade, which we know from our work with the Pittsfield Promise early literacy campaign will negatively impact their ability to succeed in school and life.

Substance use and below-average reading skills are factors influencing teen pregnancy, which is why we're tackling this with our positive youth development goals -- all of which will help us sustain a community where every individual and family lives, works and thrives.

You, too, can be a part of the change that is happening in Berkshire County. Check out facethefactsberkshires.org for more information and to find out how you can give, advocate or volunteer to help us create a community of hope and opportunity for all.

Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org.