MANATEE -- In a letter to the Herald published May 24, Bradenton's Paige Sagar urged Manatee County residents to recognize the work being done to lower teen pregnancy rates in Manatee County.
"I know first-hand that teen pregnancy causes many hardships as I became a teen mom in 2011," Sagar, now 22, wrote. "This resulted in me being homeless, living in a maternity home and almost dropping out of high school. Fortunately, I was able to graduate from high school, obtain my associate's degree and now I am pursuing my bachelor's degree."
Sagar points out that even with hard work she is fighting many obstacles typical of teen parenthood, including remaining impoverished and still struggling hard to succeed.
Sagar tells her story to youth at schools, clubs and the juvenile detention centers as a teen parent intern for Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County.
"I tell them they need to find out who they are as a person before they decide to take that big step," Sagar said by phone a few days ago. "I tell them that it is best to be done with education and have a career so you can afford the things you want and need and find someone on the same path and then have a child."
Sagar become sexually active at age 13, She got involved with a 22-year-old man she met at the mall. He was not the father of her child, however. She looks back on that time and sees clues everywhere.
"I had lost my grandmother and my parents got divorced when I was 11 or 12," Sagar said. "There was a lot of turmoil in my house. My father had moved out."
"Basically, I felt abandoned," Sagar added. "I was looking for attention. I was very depressed and had very low esteem."
She acted out on strong emotions with rebellion, she said.
"From age 13 to 17 I made bad choices," Sagar said. "I was promiscuous. I was hanging around older people and hanging around older guys and that introduced me into becoming sexually active. When I was 17, I got pregnant and stopped going to school."
Asked to leave her home, Sagar had her daughter, Rylee, when she was 17 and living at SOLVE Maternity Home in Bradenton.
Rylee is now 4. Sagar, a single mom, also has Caidyn, her son, who is now 1- 1/2. Rylee's father is not in the picture and not providing child support, Sagar said. Caidyn's father is supportive, Sagar said.
Caidyn was unexpected.
"As much as I should have known better, I had a reaction to my birth control and was off contraceptives," Sagar said. "It was a situation where I thought I was protected but I wasn't."
Sagar doesn't hide anything from the kids she speaks to and she gets many interesting questions from them.
"I am often asked if the 'pull out' method of birth control works," Sagar said. "I explain it does not. I tell them to abstain from sex whenever they can, which is the 100 percent
sure way to not become pregnant. I also tell them if they have unprotected sex, becoming a teen parent is probably the best outcome. They could get a fatal sexually transmitted disease."
Tax payers fund programs
In 2010, when Sagar got pregnant with Rylee, Manatee County ranked 11th highest out of 67 counties in Florida in number of births per 1,000 teens, said Mary Ann Legler, chair of Healthy Teen Coalition of Manatee, whose mission is to help teens avoid risky behaviors of all kinds.
That rate set off alarms and, over the past three or four years, the county has implemented a number of programs at significant cost to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy.
The biggest is It's YoUR Choice, which has 18 community partners, including the School District of Manatee, the Florida Department of Health, Manatee and Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County, all of which draw from "Choice's" operating budget, which was $300,000 this year, Legler said.
By 2013, Manatee County had improved to 32nd out of 67 Florida counties in the rate of teen births, Legler said.
"It absolutely worked," Legler said. "We moved up 23 spots."
Dr. Edwin Hernandez of the Florida Department of Health, Manatee, also says the programs are working.
"The Manatee teen birth rate and repeat teen birth rate are still higher than state and national averages but are both on the decline," Hernandez said last week.
As for how it works, says Hernandez:
"Our patients are individually and confidently counseled about the consequences of choosing to become sexually active and how that choice may significantly affect the future."
Since July 2013, DOH-Manatee has implemented a unique approach to teen pregnancy called the Teen Express Clinic, Hernandez said.
"This initiative offers birth control in a fast-track manner, 15 minutes door-to-door, Hernandez said.
Those who use Teen Express Clinic must qualify by having a family planning exam within the last 12 months, be current on birth control and have no other symptoms, Hernandez said.
DOH-Manatee also has Teen Outreach Program, known as TOP, that features health educators who visit area schools and present educational information to middle and high school students, Hernandez said.
"TOP was specifically selected because it has been identified by the Department of Health and Human Services as effective in reducing high-risk behavior in teens," Hernandez said.
Students who have participated in TOP have a 52 percent lower risk of school suspension, 60 percent lower risk of course failure and 53 percent lower risk of teenage pregnancy, Hernandez said.
Another program, "Draw the Line/Respect the Line," has also added to the decline of Manatee teen pregnancies, Legler said.
"It is primarily designed for middle school students," Legler said. "We have certified teachers who go into the schools and take over a physical education or science class. It's for boys and girls."
While there has been improvement, the majority of Manatee teen births right now are to 18 and 19-year-old teens, an age group where there are virtually no programs, Legler said.
In 2013, 64 percent of the Manatee County teen births were to 18- and 19-year-olds while 34.2 percent were to 15- through 17-year-old teens mothers, Legler said.
"I am not aware of programs in our county that specifically focus on that age range," Legler said. "The Manatee County Children's Services tax base can only fund programs for youth through age 17.
"We won't budge our state ranking downward any more without tackling 18 and 19-year-olds," Legler added.
The local teen pregnancy agencies are also concerned about sexually transmitted diseases.
The fastest growing rate of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV are in the 13-24 year old segment of the U.S. population, Legler said.
When programs don't work
The teen pregnancy education programs did not help Sagar when she was a teen. But what did, she said, was her stay at SOLVE Maternity Home in Bradenton.
SOLVE offers two homes in Bradenton and one in Sarasota with free room, board and counseling services for pregnant teens and other women, said Peggy Kerwin, SOLVE's executive director.
"That was a turning point in my life," Sagar said. "SOLVE taught me a lot about self-worth. I reconnected with God. They applauded me for good things I did and encouraged me to go back to school and helped me do well in school."
A Braden River High School student before her pregnancy, Sagar enrolled at Central High School while at SOLVE.
Her grade point average rose from 2.6 to 3.3, helped by a 4.0 average in her senior year, she said.
Currently, she is a server at the Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurant on U.S. 41 in Bradenton and has started her own business, Your Cleaning People LLC.
With a recommendation from SOLVE, Sagar received a scholarship from the State College of Florida Foundation and she graduated from SCF with an Associates Degree in 2013.
She is now going to the University of South Florida with dreams to be a clinical social worker and work for the School District of Manatee as a drop out prevention counselor.
"I think what we see in Manatee County is a high area of spiritual, moral and economic poverty," Kerwin said.
"When you have people looking for love in all the wrong places and you have young women searching for value and importance and not getting it in a home environment, they will seek it from the opposite sex."
In 2014, SOLVE served 12 women under the age of 18, Kerwin said.
"I would say that is our average over the last five years," Kerwin said.
Kerwin urges parents to carefully consider their reactions to the news that their teen daughters are pregnant.
"First thing I would say is that no matter what it looks like, life is not over," Kerwin said. "Your daughter's life might look different but that is not necessarily a bad thing."
Kerwin tells parents that they must mourn the loss of what they thought their daughter's life would be like.
"And I get that," Kerwin said. "This is a blow to their plans for college and other things. But, often times, it's the life of this child that propels the woman into the next phase of life and a new sense of focus and purpose."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.