Aiming to improve self-help and selfcare among young Costa Ricans, the U.S.-based nonprofit organization TeenSmart International this year began implementing its program here.
Increasing exposure to illegal drugs, unwanted pregnancies, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases plague Costa Rican teenagers.
One in three Ticas gets pregnant by age 20, and only 28% of teens reported using a condom during their first sexual encounter, according to the Central American Population Center (TT, April 15, 2005).
TeenSmart Central America Coordinator Leonor Gutiérrez told The Tico Times the organization s Web-based program was created to overcome six universal behavior threats ranging from drug use to high-risk sexual encounters by putting into practice seven habits of highly effective people.
These habits include adopting a proactive attitude, understanding to be understood and accepting people s differences.
Approximately 450 students ages 10-20 are using the TeenSmart program in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The program features a 14-module, interactive online course that can be imparted at whatever pace considered appropriate by the institution offering it.
As part of the course, students communicate with psychologists and counselors through an online workbook where they write their questions and concerns and receive responses in approximately 48 hours, Gutiérrez said.
The five Costa Rican and two Guatemalan counselors do not provide therapy, but rather feedback to the student s comments, she explained.
The program, which costs approximately $100 per student, has been implemented at six locations in Costa Rica serving a total of 200 students, thanks to a donation from the private Hospital Clínica Bíblica. Gutiérrez explained a key aspect of the TeenSmart program is not to preach to its students.
The idea is not to impose beliefs on adolescents, but help them come up with their own solutions. It is also a great challenge for us, she told The Tico Times.
The program can be delivered online only or combined with lessons, depending on each particular institution.Many institutions include teaching sessions, discussion circles or other activities.
At Internado Manantial, an afterschool program for students from MonterreySchool, in Desamparados, a southeastern suburb of San José, where many students are exposed to drugs or stressful family situations, the online course has been combined with weekly discussion circles.
Assistant Director Ana Maritza Jiménez told The Tico Times that since the program began in February, it has benefited 21 students ages 10-12. Though the program is intended for youth older than 11, two 10-year-olds were chosen because of their problematic home situations, she explained.
Some children are very precocious. Many (at Manantial) come from marginal urban areas where they are surrounded by drugs, sex and conflict. The program has been of great use to them, she said.
Jiménez said after 14 weeks, Manantial participants completed the program s final module last month, and enjoyed a colorful learning experience that included role-playing and dressing up as pregnant women.
It was shocking for them to see their classmates, 12-year-old girls, look pregnant.
In the end, the lesson was abstinence is best, said Jiménez, who explained that at Manantial, it is not uncommon for young girls to have older boyfriends, and face the decision of entering sexual relationships at an early age.
Manantial s TeenSmart students had positive comments about their experience. It has helped me to face challenges in life, Norberto Ramírez, 12, told The Tico Times during his lunch break.
Edwin Ordóñez, also 12, said, The counselor taught me how to put my values into practice.
Gutiérrez, who oversees implementation and development of the program at its different host institutions throughout Central America, said Manantial students will likely have their TeenSmart graduation in late October. During the ceremony, funds permitting, each student will receive the Spanish version of the self-help bestseller
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Irish author Sean Covey, son of Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
After that, TeenSmart can continue to be offered at Manantial and its other Costa Rican locations only if donors are found to keep funding the program, Gutiérrez said, adding that though obtaining corporate assistance is ideal, they ll gladly accept individual donations as well.
TeenSmart is also taught at four Nicaraguan schools and one school in Guatemala, where the program was first implemented in Central America approximately three years ago.
The program began with research started 14 years ago by Cathy Strachan Lindenberg, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and researchers from several other U.S. universities, including Emory University, Georgia State University, and University of Massachusetts in Boston.
In 2004, the program became a nonprofit organization, which provided more freedom since it could go public and did not have to meet the university s research needs, Gutiérrez said.
For more information about the TeenSmart program, which is available in English and Spanish, contact Gutiérrez at 837-6478, e-mail [email protected] or see www.teensmart.net.