Darnell Byrd McPherson returned several years ago to the rural South Carolina county where she was raised, moving into the house where she grew up. After living and working in cities across the South, she considers herself home.
In Hartsville, Darnell directs Darlington County First Steps, a partner in the state’s early childhood education initiative. Along with its focus on school readiness, her organization is working in Darlington with the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
With nearly $62,000 in funding from The Duke Endowment, Darnell’s team of local leaders first conducted a needs assessment that led to a comprehensive plan to reduce teen pregnancy in the county. The Endowment awarded a subsequent multi-year grant of $780,000 to help the community move from planning to action. Efforts will focus on school-based education, clinic access to contraceptive care, and community-led interventions. The idea is to give young people the resources to make healthy choices.
There’s momentum, but this is daunting work. Nearly 4,300 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth in South Carolina last year. Darlington is the state’s only county to be both “high volume” and “high burden” when it comes to teen pregnancy. Counties with high numbers of teen births and birth rates are considered high volume; burden is based on the teen pregnancy rate, percentage of repeat births, percentage of children living in poverty, dropout rates and infant mortality.
For Darnell, the mission is also personal. In her blended marriage, she dotes on 12 children and 15 grandchildren. She has dedicated her life to service and advocacy, helping vulnerable families find the support they need to thrive.
And she knows all too well the cost of teen pregnancy. She was 19 when she became pregnant during her second year of college. Without her mother as her foundation, things could have been much different.
Darnell’s mother worked as a high school cafeteria manager and earned extra money styling hair and sewing. After taking a job in a factory, she was the first person to retire without ever using a sick day. But as she struggled to provide for her two children, she always thought of others. She stocked one freezer with garden vegetables for her family; a second freezer stored food to share with neighbors. “When you’re blessed, be a blessing to others,” she often told her son and daughter, and “Don’t sit on the sidelines of life.”
Darnell took those messages to heart. She loves to talk, leaping from one subject to another. She loves to dance, and has won competitions. She loves working on behalf of others.
She’s a whirl of action, a linchpin that makes things happen.
“She’s a perfect leader for complicated issues like these because Darnell has never met a challenge she can’t find a solution for,” says Forrest Alton, CEO of the South Carolina Campaign. “But it’s her genuine love for the community that motivates her and inspires so many others.”
“I try to live a life that someone will look at and say, ‘If she did it, I certainly can do it, too,” Darnell says. “If I can give someone hope – if I can help change a life for the better – then I know something good has come of this work.”
Tamika D. Williams
Associate Director, Child Care