Throughout Baltimore City, a new and rather arresting image has been plastered on billboards: the word VIRGIN, spelled out in 10-foot-high letters, and then the reminder: "Teach your kids it's not a dirty word."
The billboards are the latest phase in the statewide offensive in the war against teen-age pregnancy launched by Campaign for Our Children, a unique public-private sector venture headed by Baltimore City advertising mogul Hal Donofrio.
On a modest $1 million a year, two-thirds of the funding provided by the business community, the organization runs a slick multi-media advertising campaign geared to teen-agers -- complete with radio and television commercials, newspapers, T-shirts, buttons and even a 24-hour hot line -- which work in conjunction with a classroom program, including counseling to encourage abstinence among 9- to 14-year olds. For those over 15, on whom the lesson is too often lost, birth control and safe sex are emphasized.
Although precise measurements are elusive, the concept appears to be working. Last year the state health department reported that teen pregnancy dropped by 5 percent in 1989, and another 5 percent in 1990. Moreover, it found the number of abortions among teens dropped 16 percent from 1988 to 1989.
In Baltimore City, which has earned the dubious distinction as No. 1 in the nation for births to girls 14 and under, that is good news. So too for the state. A recent study by the University of Baltimore's Center for Public Policy found that Marylanders foot a $454 million-a-year bill to pay for services from the onset of a teen-age pregnancy through all those that follow for the young mothers and their children.
By that measure, Campaign for our Children, has already saved Maryland $45 million. The state, which has allocated just $320,000 annually for the program, certainly gets its money's worth. Sadly, however, the fiscal crunch has slashed even that meager contribution by $25,000 for fiscal 1992. That's money the campaign must make up -- plus more -- if it is to continue its work and reach a new crop of teen-agers every year as well.
The state is tapped out; only citizen support and financial help from the private sector can ensure that Campaign for our Children will be able to keep up the good work.