It’s hard not to get caught up in Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s irrepressible enthusiasm for the cause she’s dedicated her life to: young people.
Spend five minutes with Podgurski and her intelligence, wit and inexhaustible drive are on full display.
So is her passion for teens.
Twenty-five years ago, Podgurski founded the Washington Health System Teen Outreach, inspired by her encounter in the 1970s with a pregnant 12-year-old who endured a 19-hour labor, with Podgurski by her side, then gave her baby up for adoption.
A quarter-century later, Teen Outreach programs have reached more than 230,000 youth in all 14 Washington County school districts.
The results of Teen Outreach’s programs have been significant.
Since 1989, the teen pregnancy rate among 15 to 17-year-olds in Washington County dropped from 36 per 1,000 to 12 per 1,000 today.
The graduation rate for teen moms participating in Teen Outreach’s Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program ranges from 88 to 96 percent, overwhelmingly higher than the national average of less than 40 percent. And the rate of second pregnancies has been lower than 5 percent since the late 1990s, and less than 3 percent over the past five years.
Podgurski and her staff mentor between 70 and 120 young parents each year through the Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program.
“Even with the lower pregnancy rate, we will always have some teen pregnancy. So, we want to teach them to parent well,” said Podgurski. “We teach them how to be good parents using evidence-based activities. I actually think every parent should have exposure to my staff at this point. They do some really good things that all parents can benefit from.”
Podgurski is known as the “sex lady,” but Teen Outreach has evolved to meet the needs of youngsters and offers education programs aimed at empowering young people to make healthy choices. Teen Outreach’s Real Talk Performers produce teen educational dramas that tackle issues like drunk driving and bullying, and they’ve won three first-place state drama competitions. In 2006, Podgurski began Teen Outreach’s Ambassador for Respect Program, which is designed to develop and promote respect and reaches 18,000 children in grades 4-12. The 2014 topic is respect for older adults, and Teen Outreach is holding a video contest which calls for teens to interview someone 65 or older, with a $500 prize awarded to the best video.
The other programs: Teen Outreach Peer Education, which encourages young people to become role models and teach others; ECHO (Educate Children for Healthy Outcomes), a youth development program that aims to reach potentially at-risk young people in grades 2-12 through one-one-one educational mentoring; the Common Ground Teen Center, supervised by teens; a child abuse prevention program that targets third- and fourth-graders called Inside Out: Your Body is Amazing Inside and Out and Belongs Only to You; and an Adolescent Advisory Board made up of teens from all 14 Washington County school districts and one Greene County district that meets monthly at The Washington Hospital to provide curriculum guidance, perspectives on teen culture and a creative vision for the Outreach.
“That young mother was my catalyst, but I’ve always loved young people. Kids have always been my passion. My mantra is simple: Every young person is a person of worth and deserves respect,” said Podgurski. “Most people only see us as teaching sexuality, but we do so much more. We reach out to young people regardless of their race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender or sexual orientation. ”
Chronically busy, Podgurski – who rarely gets a full night’s sleep and often is up at 4 a.m., working – makes herself available 24/7 to teens who need her (you can’t care for people just between 9 and 5, she says). Over the years, she and her staff have dealt with suicide attempts, sexual assaults and frightened pregnant teens.
Mental health counselor Rueben Brock has worked with Podgurski over the years and marvels at the impact she’s had on the teens she works with.
“Kids can go to Mary Jo and feel comfortable and ask questions and get accurate information from someone who’s safe. If you ever spend any time in her Teen Center, you’d see that teens go there because they know it’s OK for them to be themselves around her. It’s a place where they can have respite and be themselves and find out who they are without anyone condemning them or judging them.”
Podgurski, 63, started her nursing career as an oncology nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
In between raising three children, she earned a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in education.
In 1988, she partnered with the Washington Health System to introduce the first sexuality education program in the county.
An adjunct professor at Washington and Jefferson College, Podgurski has presented more than 500 workshops locally, nationally and internationally. She writes a weekly column for the Observer-Reporter, and has received dozens of awards, including the UPMC Dignity and Respect Champion Award in 2011 and the NOAPPP (National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting) Outstanding Professional Award. And she co-founded Washington County’s first Gay Straight Alliance.
“I didn’t do this by myself,” said Podgurski. “I have amazing staff members and the Washington Hospital has been, for 25 years, absolutely wonderful to me. This is not an income producer for the hospital and they didn’t have to do this. They did it for the community. I’ve been married to Richard, the same dude for 40 years, and he and my children have been tremendously supportive.”
In turn, said associate director Heather Crowe, Podgurski has created an ideal workplace.
“It’s rare that you find an employer who puts your family and your own well-being first, and Mary Jo does that. It’s been a wonderful place for me to work,” said Crowe. “I have three kids and I haven’t missed an important moment of their lives because Mary Jo makes it possible for us to put our families first.”
Podgurski’s staff at the Academy for Adolescent Health (led by Crowe, education coordinator Maribeth Tarpley Garrett and office and community coordinator Linda Atkins) includes seven employees, down from 26 in 2006, when Teen Outreach lost about $250,000 in funding. But Podgurski adjusted, in large part because of her ability to tackle tough problems and collaborate with parents and community members, and her staff’s passion for the young people they serve. Their desire to help adolescents navigate those challenging years is in their bones, and kids love Podgurski and her staff for it.
Teen Outreach alumni keep in touch with Podgurski and her staff years after they go through Outreach programs.
Violet Lawson, 19, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, became involved with Teen Outreach as a freshman at Trinity High School and participated in the Advisory Board, Real Talk Performers and peer educator program.
As a Resident Advisor at Pitt, Lawson said she tries to “channel my inner Mary Jo and to listen like she does.”
“Seeing the way she and her staff work with the youth in the community is exceptional. She’s an excellent listener and she tries to have you come to your own conclusions instead of just giving you advice,” Lawson said.
Amanda Campbell, who graduated from Trinity High School in 2011, served as a Teen Outreach peer educator.
“Honestly, when we were in high school the biggest part of the day was when I knew Mary Jo was coming. It was the one place where you always had a voice. She and her staff valued your opinion, they valued what you cared about. You knew that what you said mattered,” said Campbell, 21. “You were heard, and Mary Jo would help you reach your goals and aspirations in life, no matter what your background was. She cares about what you want in life and she listens.”
Wrote Outreach alum Katherine Stains, “I had a baby in high school and Mary Jo and her staff were always there for me. When I was interested in childbirth education, Mary Jo took me to conferences and helped me get started. Now my “baby” is 15 and I have my bachelors and masters and I work with pregnant teens. I would not be where I am today without Mary Jo.”
Podgurski, however, has met some opposition, and in April, a group of Peters Township School District parents fought against the district’s fifth- and sixth-grade human growth and development curriculum, which parents said was too sexually explicit. The district has used the materials provided through Teen Outreach for 20 years, and parents have to to sign a permission slip for a student to be included in the program.
“That was rough, but even that was a teachable moment,” said Podgurski. “You have to learn to stand strong and not compromise what you believe in. And the worst thing I’ve had to deal with was when my parents died within four months of each other in 1996. I dealt with my mother’s Alzheimer’s, and my dad and I were extremely tight, and nothing comes close to losing them.”
On one recent day, teenagers Logan Weakland and David Pascoe, who work at the Common Ground Teen Center (its walls are adorned with inspirational quotes and student artwork), walked through the door and Podgurski greeted them cheerily.
“Hi guys, how you be? I am very impressed Logan, you cleaned this place. I’m proud of you,” she said.
Pascoe leaned against the counter and said to Podgurski, “You know that monsoon that hit around 9:30 this morning? I had to walk in it to work.”
“I’m very sorry, David. Life is hard,” she commiserated. “There’s food in the fridge. Get some food if you’re hungry.”
Teens trickled in, some for tutoring, others to plan and discuss activities, which included an art show held earlier in December.
“This is a good place,” said Podgurski, looking around.
She reflected on how her perspective has changed since she first started teaching sex education.
“I went into schools in 1988 and my plan was to teach all kids not to have sex. It was going to be totally abstinence-focused but then I did something a lot of people don’t do. I listened and I began to understand that kids are complicated,” said Podgurski. “When I worked at Sloan-Kettering in pediatrics and cancer, I knew so little about reality. What has changed the most, I think, is that I’ve changed with the young people. But I’ve never compromised my values. I still think they should be young people. There are things that adults should do and things that young people should do. Don’t take on adult burdens until you have to. Be 15 when you’re 15.”
Two years after Podgurski helped deliver the 12-year-old girl’s baby, she received a telephone call from the girl on Mother’s Day.
“She said, ‘I’m a mother and you were there,’” recalled Podgurski.
After 40 years as a nurse, educator, speaker and trainer, Podgurski has no plans to slow down.
“I don’t picture myself ever retiring,” said Podgurski. “This is the greatest pleasure in my life, aside from raising my kids. This has been an amazing journey, and I like it more than anything.”