Best & Brightest: Temple University Grad Continues Public Health Advocacy

Like many working adults in college, Kelly Lopez struggled to find a babysitter for her child and endured long commutes to attend school, but in August, the Reading, Pa., resident earned her degree in public health from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Unlike many college students, it took her 15 years to finish.

Lopez, who will participate in an official graduation ceremony next May, said a 1980s sitcom was one of her main reasons for choosing Temple.

“I grew up in the time of The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby is Temple. He had all this passion for Temple,” said Lopez, who moved to Reading from Puerto Rico at age 3. “Once I started researching Temple, I wanted to stay in the area. Temple was a very good school and not too far from home. It was the only school for me.”

Lopez credits Temple with allowing her to create Chicas in Charge, a five-week program in Reading that helps Latina girls ages 14 to 17 learn about preventing sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.

She began working on the project while taking a two-semester program planning course that explained how to budget and market a health program and write grants. Lopez presented the project during an internship interview at the Co-County Wellness Services office in Reading. While working there, the project became a reality in July, when about 10 teenage girls took classes on birth control and the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Teen pregnancy hits Lopez personally. r two brothers and two friends had children while in high school. Her friends graduated from Temple and are pursuing master’s degrees. Her brothers have families and are working steady jobs.

“I grew up in the Glenside housing projects in Reading. Teen pregnancy is a very important issue in Reading,” she said. Berks County, where Reading is located, ranked fourth in the state in 2007 for reported teen pregnancies among girls ages 15 to 17, with 250, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health.

“With Chicas in Charge, we wanted to form a group of girls to tell other girls that teen pregnancy is not cool,” Lopez said. “We don’t advocate for girls to have sex, but if they do, be protected. A lot of these girls don’t understand their own bodies.”

It wasn’t an easy road for Lopez to earn her bachelor’s requirements.

Immediately after graduating from high school in 1995, she enrolled at Temple to pursue an elementary education degree. With 2½ semesters completed, she left school to move to Alaska with her future husband in October 1998. There she worked as a waitress, an administrative assistant and a Spanish-language teacher.

Lopez then moved to Philadelphia in 2004, and that year her son, Alijah, was born. She decided to return to Temple and change her major to public health.

After Lopez and her husband separated in 2007, she moved back to Reading. In her final year of school, she worked on her pregnancy prevention program and sacrificed time with her son to commute 1½ to two hours each way from Reading to Philadelphia two to four days a week.

“Kelly was all about going back to the community to help. She actually interviewed the public health officials in her community that she knows about and lives in. It is a place where she grew up, and because she knew the area, I think that was one of the reasons why she succeeded in putting the [Chicas in Charge] project together,” said Dr. Sylvia Twersky-Bumgardner, who taught the program planning class. “Her life was affected by teen pregnancy and how it affects her community. She is going to be a perfect public health official.”