Program teaches inner-city mothers and sons to reduce their health risks

Some of the best HIV prevention programs in the country are here in Philadelphia. And the source of those programs is the School of Nursing and Loretta Sweet Jemmott, Ph.D., FAAN (GNu'82/Gr'87).

Sweet Jemmott, recently honored at the Women of Color Awards Luncheon for her work, is the director of Penn's Center for Urban Health Research. The center's mission is to improve the health of inner-city people. "It's about caring, helping people make healthy decisions," she said. "They feel that we care about them, and we do care."

Two of her HIV prevention programs for teens have been earning national recognition. The Centers for Disease Control selected the Community Based Health Promotion Project for the fourth time as a national model for teaching minority teens to reduce their risk of contracting HIV. The curriculum is aimed at inner city youth, to "increase their knowledge, change negative attitudes about using condoms, increase their skills in condom use and negotiation, and to effect behavior change," Sweet Jemmott said.

The study showed that the curriculum did indeed effect behavior changes and healthier decisions.

"In 1994 the CDC found the Jemmott curriculum and wanted to hear how we were getting all these wonderful results," Sweet Jemmott said. "They talked to the teens; the people who trained. They met with the trainers too."

The study, which is a joint project with her husband, Princeton University psychologist John B. Jemmott III, also recently received a $6 million grant from the National Institutes on Mental Health (NIMH) to determine whether the curriculum will work as well on a large scale as it did in small-scale studies. "We know it works. What happens when you are no longer doing it and giving it to the community to run?"

Another NIMH-funded program is local. The Mothers & Sons Program gives minority mothers living in Philadelphia public housing the confidence, skills and knowledge to teach their sons how to reduce health risks, including HIV and AIDS.

Sweet Jemmott's interest in Philadelphia's inner city is personal. "I'm part of it. Helping them means helping me, helping my uncle. ... My mom lives 10 minutes from here.

"Coming back to Penn -- I was a professor at Rutgers for seven years, I taught at Columbia a couple of years -- coming here was like coming home. I know the people, the agencies, the leaders."

Those local contacts were key in getting the program into the 42 housing developments in the city, Sweet Jemmott said. "I knew the director of housing developments (John White). He was my friend when I was 16. ... People said John White will never let you in. But he wrote a wonderful letter that opened doors for me. Mountains moved."

When Sweet Jemmott goes in the housing development doors, she doesn't dress up in her professor clothes.

"You can't go into a housing development looking like you're better than people," she said.

She has taken great pains to make herself and the program fit in. She designed the curriculum with community input. She hired staff from the community and someone who lived in the housing development as the full-time site coordinator. And the trainers who teach the mothers and sons (and grandmothers, too) in each housing development are also residents there.

The return rate for follow-up sessions is extraordinarily high -- 97 percent of the participants come for follow-up sessions three months later, 95 percent come six months later, and 92 percent come 12 months later.

Her fitting-in strategy has worked. "I'm still the crazy kid who grew up here. It's good for me, good for the people I love, and good for the school."

Originally published on April 2, 1998