Guardian of teen moms Mentor: Pregnant girls, once shamed and ostracized, have found a powerful ally in Vivian Washington. Today, she will be honored for her tenacious advocacy.

November 25, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Vivian E. Washington is diminutive, a dignified woman with a delicate voice. Her priest calls her a bulldozer.

For 30 years she has resolutely pushed out of the way any obstructions that lay between her and her plans to help pregnant teen-agers build a life for themselves. She tells her story in a warble, inflected by a soft laugh when the harsh or improbable parts come up.

"I was assistant principal at Clifton Park Junior High," she says, "and because I was a woman, I was in charge of the girls. One thousand girls."

This was the early 1960s, and if a girl in the city schools became pregnant, she was tossed out of school the moment anyone found out -- as was the custom. Rumors would reach the office, or the nurse would tell, or the girl would get sick, and Washington had to call in the parents, throw the girl out and tell her she couldn't come back. After the baby was born, she could resume her education, but shame required that she be sent to another school.

"They cried so badly when the parents came," she says. "And I was appalled. They looked like babies themselves."

Those tears set Washington on a journey that will bring her tonight to the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, where the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families will honor her with a reception and introduce an award in her honor, to be given for outstanding work in pregnancy prevention.

"Mrs. Washington has been the state champion in dealing with teen-age pregnancy," says Dr. Linda S. Thompson, Maryland's secretary for children, youth and families and creator of the Vivian E. Washington Award. "She's always there, and she's been there since the beginning."

Moved by the plight of the girls she saw, Washington persuaded the city school system to approve a secondary school for pregnant teens. She opened the school in 1966 at Fayette and Greene streets, in the old Edgar Allan Poe School No. 1, where, perhaps, the girls could imagine ravens ready to shriek accusingly at them -- "Nevermore!"

Since then, teen pregnancy has become one of America's most perplexing social issues, such a widespread and even accepted phenomenon that the realities of a generation ago are startling to recall.

"When they got on the bus," Washington remembers, "people would point at them and make fun of them. Today, they just stay in their own school, and no one even notices."

Nationally, the pregnancy rate among girls ages 15 to 19 was 143.1 per 1,000 girls in 1972; in 1992, the last year for which national statistics are available, the pregnancy rate was 111.9 per 1,000.

Those pregnancies resulted in 96.9 births per 1,000 girls in 1972 and 60.7 births in 1992, with an abortion rate of 24.4 per 1,000 girls in 1972 and 35.5 in 1992.

The good news for Washington is that in Baltimore, as in the rest of the country, the teen birthrate has been declining since 1991. The rate in Baltimore -- which has been substantially higher than the national average -- was 118.2 per 1,000 girls in 1990. It fell to 116.8 in 1991, to 114.3 in 1992, to 112.5 in 1993 and 107.2 in 1994.

Washington is being honored as part of the Annual State Conference on Teen-age Pregnancy and Parenting, which includes seminars today on the theme of "Challenges of Adolescent Pregnancy in an Era of Reform."

Selwyn I. Ray, an organizer for the Baltimore Community Foundation involved in teen-age health issues, has worked extensively with Washington, including serving with her on the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.

"She's an institution," says Ray. "She's heard a lot of talk all those years, and she pushes for action."

Washington, who is 82, has a nearly endless resume -- opening the school that today is Baltimore's Laurence G. Paquin Middle-High School, as a consultant to national teen pregnancy programs and as a member at one time and often chairwoman of nearly every state and city pregnancy organization.

"The most important thing to her is children," Ray says. "She loves them, and she has such dignity about her that when she speaks, these children look up to her. She's a beautiful lady."

Washington's pastor, the Rev. Peter Bramble of St. Katherine's Episcopal Church at Presstman and Division streets, says she has been involved in every aspect of the church. She ran the Sunday school for years and met her husband, the late G. Luther Washington, singing in the choir there. She sang in the choir for 50 years.

"She pushed me to do a lot in community outreach," Bramble says. "She came up with the concept of teaching parenting skills and creating family life centers. If anything needs doing, she's there. She's like a female bulldozer. She wears you out until she gets something done."

Thirty years ago, Washington went to her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, to discuss her concern for the pregnant girls she was seeing. "We had 20 social workers," she says. "We studied [the girls]. They were all different, and they all had needs. We decided they shouldn't be treated like criminals."

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