VP&S Students Provide Outreach to Pregnant Teens in New York City

June 3, 2019
Elena Wadden and Natasha Natarajan
Elena Wadden’22 and Natasha Natarajan'22

In a cozy space near 174th Street, a small group of female medical students and teenage mothers-to-be gather to share information, hopes and dreams, and looming fears regarding a soon to be life-changing event. 

The gathering is part of APOYO, an adolescent pregnancy program in Washington Heights run by VP&S medical students. The program began in 2012 as a project by a VP&S student in the Daniel Noyes Brown Primary Care Scholars Program and became a student-run outreach program within the P&S Club in 2015. APOYO, a Spanish word for “support,” is exactly its mission: to empower, educate, and offer emotional support specifically tailored to teenage motherhood. 

Natasha Natarajan’22 and Elena Wadden’22 currently co-chair the organization. "We don’t really call ourselves a P&S club because there are so few of us," says Wadden. "We pair each teenager with a student mentor in order to keep it intimate, and it works best that way." Only a specific number of mentors are accepted per year depending on how many adolescents are interested. Last year the organization mentored six pregnant adolescents. Language barriers are taken into consideration; a mentee is always paired with a mentor who speaks her language.

“Mentor” is a kind of a misnomer. “We have never been in their situation," explains Wadden. "One of the biggest questions the girls ask us is if we have ever been pregnant." 

On Wednesday evenings in the fall, the group gathers to discuss specific topics with an expert. The discussion is informal and gives the adolescents space to ask questions and voice concerns. Topics include everything from what bodily changes one can expect during pregnancy, nutritional advice, and delivery options to inter-relationship and/or domestic violence, birth control choices, breastfeeding, and baby care. “We even have a psychiatrist who comes in to discuss postpartum depression,” says Wadden.

Many of the teenagers face a lack of financial resources, and APOYO connects the mothers-to-be with programs available to them. For instance, the girls qualify for a doula companion after delivery, and another organization provides free cribs. Providing diapers is a need the organization is looking to fill. 

The program is set up in three stages. During the spring, VP&S medical students connect to an established network of social workers who provide a list of candidates. The students then invite the young women to participate. Throughout the summer, Wadden and Natarajan interview potential mentors. The selection process for mentors is lengthy because it is imperative that candidates exhibit a deep level of commitment as the young women depend on them throughout both fall and spring terms. Once the mentors are chosen, the group begins to gather in the fall on Wednesday evenings. 

“Participating in APOYO has changed the way I look at patient care,” says Natarajan. “In medical school, patient contact is very brief. You’ll see the patient maybe once. Through this program, I am able to witness a young woman go through many transitions: pregnancy, delivery, and followup post delivery. It makes me aware that she has a home life separate from when we see her—I see her more holistically.” 

Some new mothers stay in touch with their student mentors after delivery. “At that point, we become their friends, so it is less structured,” says Natarajan. Next fall, APOYO plans to invite mothers and their babies from previous years to speak to a new group of teenagers. The program’s goal is to create a warm positive environment—a strong female kinship which to date has been hugely successful.

For more information about the program, please contact apoyo@columbia.edu.