Teenage pregnancy is one of six "winnable battles" in public health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced.
Erica Mills-Hollis is living proof.
Indeed, it appears America has been winning the battle for more than two decades. Pregnancy rates for girls ages 15-19 across the U.S. dipped 39 percent between 1988 and 2008, accounting for a 27 percent drop in Texas, according to a report released by the Guttmacher Institute earlier this year.
But for some, like Mills-Hollis, who've fought the battle first-hand, as long as the rate stays above zero, the battle must go on.
"Statistics say the teen pregnancy rate has dropped, and that's awesome," said Mills-Hollis, a McKinney author who has written two books aimed at preventing teen pregnancy and helping teen moms and moms-to-be. "But it still exists, so there's work to be done."
In the Dallas area, some of that work goes by the name Precious Heart Publishing, the company Mills-Hollis started in 2010 through which she wrote and released, "Dreams Altered But Not Abandoned - The Teen Mom Experience."
The book is a teen mom's guide to navigating through the balance, motivation and strategies necessary to keep dreams alive while rearing a child. It's a guide to a battle for which Mills-Hollis has been on the front lines since she was 15.
Now 34, living with her husband and two sons, she had her older son, Erique, at age 16. Her boyfriend, Erique's biological father, had given her everything her own father wouldn't - compliments, care, encouragement - and a baby bump resulted, her picturesque future seemingly unraveled, she said.
"It was very rough because I knew everything would change," she recalled. "I wasn't going to be a kid anymore; I wasn't going to get to go to prom or stay in a dorm at college."
It was 1994, so she could have felt like another statistic, like she'd forever be another small-town girl who got pregnant in high school. Teen pregnancies had not yet seriously declined around the U.S.; the nation hit its peak rate of 117 pregnancies per 1,000 teens just four years prior, according to the Guttmacher report, "U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions, 2008: State Trends by Age, Race and Ethnicity."
Long before popular TV shows like "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant" tried to document the experience, Mills-Hollis lived it. And she didn't get paid for her sudden sacrifices.
"It's hard," she said. "You're a kid yourself, you're still learning, and now you have to raise this other person."
With support from her mother, Mills-Hollis earned her GED and landed several solid jobs without extensive education. She raised Erique and got an associate's degree from Collin County Community College (now Collin College), and did so how most teen moms must - without TV cameras and compensation. "It's glamorized because [those shows] don't portray the everyday life," Mills-Hollis said. "Reality is, you have to work, you have to go to school and you take care of the baby."
That she did for more than a decade, all the while writing, fueled by a passion there since her mother bought her a diary as a young girl. She married King Hollis and the two moved to McKinney, where she had her second son, Uriah, about five years ago.
Mills-Hollis works her days in public relations for Frito Lay, and for the past few years, has spent her nights pushing Precious Heart to the public. Dallas ISD schools give copies of "Dreams Altered but Not Abandoned" to students in their teen mom program. Her second book, "365 Daily Inspirations & Quotes for the Fascinating Teen Girl," is passed out to girls at detention centers, on their way to prison.
"Every day of the year, it gives them some type of encouragement, some type of motivation," she said, adding that she wrote it to help teens prevent pregnancies.
The Guttmacher report showed that in 2008, the last year for which comprehensive information is available, Texas had the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, behind just New Mexico and Mississippi.
But the national rate, 68 pregnancies per 1,000 teens, was a 40-year low. Lead researchers in the report point toward tangible reasons for the decrease.
"There are a few key factors driving the long-term declines in teen pregnancies," Guttmacher senior researcher Laura Lindberg said in a recent statement on the report. "It is now the norm for teens to use contraceptives at first sex, which creates a pattern of continued contraceptive use down the road. Additionally, teens increasingly use the most effective birth-control methods, including hormonal methods and long-acting contraceptive methods like the IUD. By contrast, there has been less change in teens' levels of sexual activity."
Evidenced by chapters in her initial book that talk of birth control and contraceptives, Mills-Hollis seems to agree with the Guttmacher correlation. "I know abstinence is the only 100 percent way [to avoid pregnancy], but we're living in reality," she said. "We can tell them, 'No, no, no,' all we want."
Also related to many girls' aptness toward early pregnancy is their upbringing, she added, saying that a girl's father often sets the stage for how she interacts with men as a teen.
"A dad sets a standard for that young girl; he's supposed to treat her in a certain way so she knows her worth," she said. "When she doesn't have that, she's willing to accept any man who's saying things like, 'I love you.'
"You don't know your self-worth at that age unless you have someone putting that into you."
In December, Mills-Hollis published her third project, a children's book about a boy's love for his mother. She speaks at area events on teen pregnancy and its life-altering - but not abandoning - effects.
A different "teen mom" show could be in her future, she said, one dedicated to giving them advice and hard truths, instead of money. Until then, she'll continue the battle she now knows how to win - even if that means another sacrifice.
"If I can reach out to one girl, just one, my job is done," she said. "I want my first book to be taken off the shelf; I don't want there to be a need for it anymore."
Erica Mills-Hollis's books can be purchased online and at Barnes & Noble bookstores. For more information, visit apreciousheart.com.
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