Most of us consider one or two people “our kids.” Mary Jo Podgurski considers more than 230,000 students in Washington County “her kids,” and it all started with one pregnant 12-year-old.
She was working as a nurse when she was asked to counsel a 12-year old in foster care. Dr. Mary Jo’s eyes were opened to the reality of the child’s life, who was street wise and cussed regularly. After Dr. Mary Jo helped her through her pregnancy and labor, she decided she didn’t want another child to go through that.
Her life work became teaching teens about sexuality, but “I was so naive!” she said. She thought if she just told them, “If you don’t have sex, you won’t have a baby” that they would listen. “I found out it was much more complicated than that. It’s about curiosity, loneliness, longing – it’s not straightforward at all.”
Her research found a strong connection between poverty, abuse, and generational early pregnancy. A teenage mother was often the third generation to get pregnant at a young age.
“They were hungry to tell their stories.”
The WCCF is proud to name Dr. Mary Jo the Dr. Howard Jack Public Educator of the year, which recognizes a local educator who has displayed the ability to inspire children from all backgrounds and abilities, who has earned the respect of colleagues, students and parents and who is actively engaged in the community.
For the past ten years, she has overseen both Common Ground Teen Center, which provides a safe place for teens to gather and learn about becoming adults, and Teen Outreach, part of the Washington Health System. An internationally known expert in sex education, Dr. Mary Jo taught more than 750 workshops around the country and the world.
Here at home, her work has paid dividends. In the school districts where she has taught, the teen birth rate dropped from 39 out of 1,000 to 12 per 1,000.
Dr. Mary Jo is the author of 32 books, including Me Too: Real Talk about Sexuality for People of ALL Abilities and Inside Out: Your Body is Amazing Inside and Out and Belongs ONLY to YOU, a program on child abuse prevention for elementary students. She is the creator of The Nonnie Series – books for children ages 8 and up on challenging topics, including gender, race, puberty, sexuality and death. In response to the #Metoo movement, she is currently working on Nonnie Talks about Consent.
For Dr. Mary Jo, supporting teens is a 24/7 responsibility. She thinks adults would be well served to stop and listen. “The best thing adults can do is get to experience silence. These kids are wise – listen to them. They have a depth our generation didn’t have. This generation has unique challenges. They have a different wisdom.”
Dr. Mary Jo’s early career involved working in oncology. “It taught me that no one is immortal. If you know that, you make the most of the life you have. The best way to spend my life is to create ripples – the kids go and teach each other or parent well. I love what I do.”