Sunday, April 29, 2012

TOP expects to survive state budget chop

Elizabeth Strother

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From the RoundTable blog

It looked for a while like the Virginia Senate would save Roanoke's estimable Teen Outreach Program from losing the valley's last bit of grant money from the state Health Department's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative.

That hope, sadly, died in negotiations with House budget conferees, and TPPI (pronounced "tippy") is no more.

Now TOP, a program that shows great success in preventing teen pregnancies and does much more for youths and the community, will have to save itself.

It fully intends to do that, even to grow. But these are challenging times for TOP, in the best and worst sense.

At local headquarters, otherwise known as Family Service of Roanoke Valley, "We don't feel TOP is in jeopardy at all," program director Sarah Jane Lawrence said last week.

And yet, she added, "We do rely on this funding. Can we still move forward? Yes. But this is going to be a hit. It really impacts our momentum and the expansion."

Before the latest funding blow, Cheri Hartman, retired director of youth development at Family Service and the "Grandmom of TOP" explained in a separate interview that Family Service was positioned to help replicate the teen program in communities beyond the Roanoke Valley.

Family Service signed a contract late in March with the program's developer to become what it calls a Certified Replication Partner. That involves training Lawrence to become a trainer of trainers, who then would be able to replicate TOP in their home communities.

Lawrence's training normally would cost thousands of dollars, but the national organization will provide it free in exchange for Hartman's help writing a curriculum supplement focused on substance abuse prevention.

"I'm worried replication will be somewhat thwarted" all the same, Hartman said, because of the training costs for new participants. She had envisioned TPPI money would help.

TOP is a product of the Wyman Center, a long-established nonprofit youth development organization outside of St. Louis. Its evidence-based curriculum, used in schools and by community organizations, is designed with three goals in mind: to help at-risk teens develop healthy behaviors, life skills and a sense of purpose. Community service is a vital component.

The program doesn't just lecture, much less hector, teens about walking the straight and narrow. Community-service learning opens their eyes to what the larger world offers, what they can give back and what they need to do to be community leaders.

Avoiding pregnancy and staying in school are key.

Youths who get the message lay a foundation for building successful lives and, in turn, creating good communities. Roanoke's TOP participants get it, loud and clear: Over 20-plus years, the program's pregnancy rate has been near zero.

"We don't have to teach on sex-ed stuff to do a teen pregnancy prevention program," Lawrence said. The program includes some sex education, but it's not the curriculum. A decrease in teen pregnancy is an outcome.

"It's a very different approach. And, I think, the most effective thing out there."

The difference opens other funding opportunities, as well.

"TOP involves so many issues" — Lawrence rattled off a string of skills teens need on their way to growing into healthy and productive adults: obesity awareness, safe driving, bullying prevention, substance abuse prevention.

"We can certainly find an outlet [for funding] to do our program anyway."

Still, she said, "It's definitely a shame to lose that money because it does so much good, for sure. It's just so much work to look for it." But look they will, spreading the net wide.

"We make a difference in a lot of different ways," she said. "We still get money from different sources" — United Way and State Farm insurance, to name two.

"State Farm is really a good partner," she said. "They awarded us with a Good Neighbor Award for matching students with elderly people," a grant TOP plans to seek again in May.

Meeting needs of elderly people in the community is often the focus of service learning, she said. "State Farm likes to encourage that sort of thing — connecting generations. It is one of our favorite things to do, too.

"It's a sweet little way to build relationships."

"We're trying a number of things," said Family Service President and CEO John Pendarvis. "I think yes, we're on track. However, I wouldn't want to leave the impression we're not really disappointed with what's happened in the General Assembly — shorting what they know works."

Among several promising funding possibilities, he said, is a Department of Criminal Justice substance abuse prevention grant application that's now pending. "And we have looked at a couple of private grants, and asked United Way to consider an increase in our allocation for the coming year.

"None of those are guaranteed, though, other than the Wyman contract."

He thinks TOP will continue to expand in the Roanoke Valley, though, and Family Service will have a role in growing it regionally, an optimistic view founded on another:

"Things that work tend to get supported."

Strother is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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