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The numbers from 2011 were alarming.

The rate of teen births in the city was three times higher than the county average.

More than half of the neonatal and infant deaths in Niagara County were from the City of Niagara Falls.

The same year, more than 130 girls and women [between 14 to 24] were treated in Niagara Falls Memorial Center’s emergency department for symptoms related to alcohol and substance abuse, overdose, addiction or withdrawal.”

At the same time, emergency room nurses were also noting that a lot of these young moms were using marijuana throughout their pregnancies.

“These are really startling statistics that tell us about the underlying problems leading to teen pregnancy and a high rate of out of wedlock births,” said Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Sheila K. Kee.

To address drug and alcohol abuse by young women both before and pregnancy, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center is getting ready to introduce Project Runway.

Project Runway is funded by a three-year grant totaling $219,000 from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation which supports community programs that help children and young adults affected by substance abuse, learning disabilities, mental illness and intellectual disabilities achieve their full potential.

The program is based on research conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

“It’s one thing to connect people to programs early on in the pregnancy, but if you really want to get at the root cause of some of these issues you really have got to get at the issue of drug abuse and alcohol,” Kee said.

The program will formally kick off on June 4 with guest speaker Susan Foster of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse research division, which spent 20 years studying the unique effects of substance abuse in young women.

Kee said the name of the new program – Project Runway – was inspired by the television program on the Lifetime Network of the same name. The hope is that the program will show girls the pathway to success in life, in the same way the popular reality TV series teaches aspiring models what it takes to make it in the fashion world.

“We are hoping that the pathway we establish will provide a lifestyle that does not include drugs or alcohol,” Kee said.

She said the long term answer is to change behavior while the girls are still young.

According to research, girls and women who use alcohol or drugs are likelier to engage in riskier sexual behavior than those who abstain. The Columbia study also found that 55 percent of teens say that sex while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is often the reason for unplanned pregnancies.

Over the next three years, the goal of Project Runway is to educate the community on the prevalence of substance abuse in Niagara. The project also aims to train physicians to identify substance abuse.

The project will also make resources available for substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery readily available to teenage girls and young women with education services and outreach to young women in their own neighborhoods and in convenient community settings.

The program will be highly focused primarily in the zip codes of 14301, 14303 and 14305, where the risk of alcohol and drug use is highest due to poverty, large numbers of single parent households and high rates of crime.

“There is a better pathway and we are hoping to get them involved in why it’s not a good idea to take drugs, especially while you are pregnant - to do alcohol whenever you are feeling down. There’s a better way of life,” Kee said. “By intervening when they are young you have a really good shot at keeping them on a good pathway to clean living as they get older.”

email: nfischer@buffnews.com