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Helping teens

At the TeenLife Center-Wellness Center, physician assistant Caroline Woods (right) explains to patient Samantha Morgan how pain and trauma can cause elbow pain.

Teenagers who have children often face limited prospects. About 75 percent of them drop out of high school. Some 25 percent go on to have more children while still in their teens. Long-term, teen motherhood is associated with fewer employment opportunities, lower wages, and a higher need for public assistance.

Determined to change these statistics, at least in Duluth, Barbara Elliott, Ph.D., a professor of family medicine at the University’s Medical School—Duluth Campus, decided to establish TeenLife Center-Health Services, a clinic operated in Duluth’s Central High School as a partnership between the University and the Duluth Public School District.

“I see needs and try to meet them,” Elliott says of the work that has not only netted her funding from the state and federal governments, as well as the Academy of Pediatric Medicine, but also the University’s coveted Outstanding Community Service Award.

TLC-Health Services opened for business in 1996. A few years later, Elliott’s research into the needs of underserved populations led her, in collaboration with Lutheran Social Services, to begin a sister program, TLC-Wellness Center, at a drop-in center for homeless teens.

“By 2001, it was clear to us that many of the young parents were marginally housed and had mental as well as physical health issues that were not being addressed,” Elliott says.

During the 2006-2007 school year, more than 200 teens availed themselves of the services provided by a TLC facility, and the impact has been dramatic. The graduation rates for teen parents served by the program stands at 85 percent, while the percentage of second pregnancies among this group has dropped to 6 percent. Visits to the ER by teen parents have fallen from an average of once a month to once a year, and among homeless youth that figure has declined from once every third day to once every 25 days.

Despite this success, federal funding for community health centers has been slashed, forcing the Duluth program to relinquish TLC. The good news is that St. Mary’s/Duluth Clinic has formed a partnership with the Duluth Public School District to continue operations of TLC-Health Services, and Lutheran Social Services plans to reopen TLC-Wellness Center with new partners soon.

“These programs not only provide outpatient care for kids that need it, they also have a major impact on their quality-of-life,” says Elliott. “The teens we serve report that they no longer feel that they’re alone facing physical and mental challenges but that they have made connections with trustworthy adults—sometimes for the first time in their lives.”

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