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Coal-country teenager wants better resources to keep peers in school

ACE participant Kyra Wells. Photo: Beth Spence / AFSC

In late February Kyra Wells, a sophomore at Logan High School in West Virginia, was at the State Capitol, meeting with staff of Governor Tomblin. She brought up an issue that is on her mind and on the minds of many of her peers in rural Appalachia: teen pregnancy.         

“A lot of young women are getting pregnant,” Kyra said. “What could you do to prevent it?”

Kyra is a participant in the Appalachian Center for Equality youth leadership group that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) runs in Logan, located in West Virginia’s southern coalfields. The group empowers young women to realize their potential and pursue their life goals by engaging in community advocacy. 

One issue that the group has discussed this year is teen pregnancy. It has been a hard topic because almost every participant has a friend that is pregnant or has a child. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; the national data project Kids Count reports that in Logan County, 63 out of every 1,000 females age 15 to 19 had babies in 2010, compared to a national rate of 34 per 1,000.

In their discussions, they talked about the connection between concentrated poverty and the pregnancy rate. Kyra brought these issues to lawmakers and the Governor’s staff when the leadership group journeyed to the State Capitol to help kickoff the "Our Children, Our Future" campaign to address child poverty in West Virginia. 

In recent decades there has been an exodus of educated and skilled persons from southern West Virginia. The legacy of booms and busts in coal counties can be seen in lower median household incomes, higher family poverty rates, worse health outcomes, lower education levels, and high income inequality.

Because of the concentrated poverty, young people in Logan are left with little to do and a lot of ways to get into trouble, Kyra says, like “selling drugs, doing drugs, underage drinking, partying, and all sorts of other stuff they shouldn’t really do.”

Many young women lack not only career goals, but also a sense of tomorrow. College seems like a distant dream. The high school dropout rate is well above the national rate, and one in three girls who drop out cites pregnancy as the reason.

ACE program director, Lida Shepherd, wants the young women she works with to realize that they can make positive change not only for themselves but for their peers and community. Using a model that emphasizes youth-driven agenda-setting and project work, she inspires the young people’s confidence in their ability to make southern West Virginia stronger and more vibrant for everyone.

“Everyone wants a good job, and to have a good job you have to go to school,” said Kyra, “[but] the hardest thing for a teen mom to deal with is school because they don’t have anyone to watch their babies.”

Stephen Smith, executive director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, agrees with Kyra. He wants a larger safety net for teen moms. For example, the West Virginia Public Insurance Agency that provides medical coverage for state employees covers dependent children—but not their contraceptives or pregnancy care if they get pregnant.

Hallie Mason, the governor’s director of public policy, took Kyra and Stephen’s words to heart. She talked about advancing a bill that would fix this gap in coverage. 

Kyra wants to do even more. “We need to keep young people off the streets so they aren’t getting into trouble.” She sees her work with AFSC as one way to do that—being a leader, and helping to make her community stronger in the process.