MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Memphis is well-known for its blues, barbecue, and Beale Street. But the latest buzz in the city is about babies having babies.
Bluff City made national headlines in January with reports of 90 girls at Frayser High School being pregnant or having a baby this academic year.
School leaders and politicians challenged the published pregnancy figures, but none denied the city has a problem.
It's a crisis that has Memphis leaders turning to the church for answers.
"When I first heard [the story], I was like 'Wow, really?" said LaQuesha Wright, who graduated from Frayser High School. "They are not learning from everybody else?"
Wright found herself pregnant at age 16. Her daughter is now three-years-old.
"I never thought I was going to get pregnant. I never thought that," she told CBN News.
Old News, New Response
The pregnancy headlines were not news to many Memphis residents. The city's teen pregnancy rate is nearly twice the national average.
Kenneth Robinson is Tennessee's former commissioner of health and the pastor of Saint Andrew AME Church in Memphis.
"I think people should not have been shocked," he said. "We are a predominately African-American city. Teenage pregnancy rates are twice as high for African-American teenagers as they are for their white counterparts. This is not news for us in Memphis, Shelby County."
A massive media campaign has been launched that encourages girls to say no to sex. There are radio spots, social media communication, online ads, and city-wide billboards.
Beyond the media blitz, community and church leaders are also working together on the next step.
"We want to protect them from unsafe sex, and sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy," Robinson explained.
"So we have to talk about -- even in the faith community -- family planning and appropriate, applied approaches in communities such as ours when young people don't make the first choice we want them to make," he continued.
A Vision for the Youth
Teenagers from the Christian outreach group Youth Visions recently released a new song encouraging girls to abstain from sex until marriage. The song is called "No, Baby" and the community center is now at work on a music video.
Youth Visions has been working with Frayser's young people for more than a dozen years. Its mission is to train youth to be Christian leaders who say no to gangs, drugs, and sex.
"We've been crying out in the wilderness saying, 'Help us, we are a dying community,'" ministry director Marron Thomas said.
"We have so many of our kids that are pregnant. So many of our kids that are involved in gangs," Thomas said. "They are killing each other, help us. And if it took this media blast to get the attention on the issues we are facing, then, hey, we are all for it."
Thomas added that there are several success stories at Youth Visions.
Tacara Walker is a student leader who was recently accepted to three colleges. Thanks to lessons learned at Youth Visions, she is considering schooling in international studies, early childhood education, or culinary arts. Walker will be the first in her family to attend college.
"They are saying no (to sex) because my body is the temple of the Lord and we are saying no because we love Jesus Christ," Thomas said. "We want to get our hands on more of our kids so we can teach them what to say yes to."
"[We want to let] them see something different," she continued. "And if they see something different, a lot of times, we've seen our kids become something different."
Life After Birth
Showing teenage girls something different is why Summer Owens is helping tackle the city's teen pregnancy problem. She's a busy mom, but finds time to mentor young mothers and pregnant teenagers.
Owens also travels around the city to address students.
"God gave me this story, and I have to share it," she said. "There are a lot of girls who are dealing with the same thing or worse."
Owens became pregnant her sophomore year of high school. She was raped on her 15th birthday by someone visiting her cousin's home.
"[I thought] 'I can't. I'm the good girl. I want to go to college. I want to get arried. I want to have a family that way. I want to do everything right. This is messing up my perfect little picture. I can't do this,'" Owens recalled.
"I really did. At that time, I thought that [abortion] was the answer," she continued. "I was tormented in my heart and my faith didn't agree with abortion."
Summer is now a successful marketing executive. She graduated from high school, college, and business school with honors -- while raising her now 16-year-old son on her own.
She shared the emotional story in a new book, Life After Birth: A Memoir of Survival and Success as a Teenage Mother.
The book is filled with sobering life lessons that encourage young women to abstain from sex until marriage. At the same time, it offers hope to young women who are already pregnant or raising a child.
"I have never given up," Owens said. "Every time I achieve a goal, I say 'Okay, what's next? I know that there is more.'"
"God has given me a very special life that is designed to help teach other people," she said. "And I am doing just that."