Model program gives teen mothers support, practical aid

Teen-age pregnancy has been termed "the problem that hasn't gone away." In 1978, the last year for which records are available, over 570,000 adolescents became mothers. More than half of them were unmarried when their babies were conceived. Many came from poverty backgrounds, dependent on welfare. Teen mothers are now the fastest-growing group in the welfare population.

Among efforts being made to alleviate the plight of teen mothers, one model program, called Project Redirection, is now in operation in five locations around the country -- New York; Detroit; Boston; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Riverside, Calif. This unusual project is funded by the Ford Foundation and by three government agencies, and operates through community-based agencies.

Project Redirection is assisting 400 girls, with an overall ethnic mix (but chiefly black, Puerto Rican, Chicano, and white). All are 17 or under in age, without a high school diploma or equivalency degree, and are either eligible for Aid to Families With Dependent Children or living with families who receive such aid.

Some of these girls are now pregnant, while others are struggling to maintain themselves and their babies.

Diane, 13, lives with her mother and brothers and sisters in Arizona, and is now expecting a baby. She left junior high school in midwinter because of her pregnancy. Because of her participation in this project, she has had regular appointments at a prenatal clinic, has been taught the facts of birth control at a county hospital, and has been attending "basic skills" classes all spring at Project Redirection.

With project counseling and encouragement, she expects to reenroll in school this fall. Her mother will help care for her baby. Diane attends many Project Redirection events and workshops, and also sees her counselor twice a week. She hopes her life will be lifted and redirected by the assistance she is receiving from the program.

Martha, on the other hand, is an unmarried 17-year-old mother with an 18 -month-old son. For the past three years she has been in and out of school. When she became pregnant her father asked her to leave home. Because she had no place to live, the New York staff of Project Redirection helped her find and furnish a small apartment where she could raise her child.

With workshops and the help of a counselor "friend" who "listens to me and understands my situation," Martha is now planning to finish high school. She will do this by preparing to get a general equivalency diploma, which is an alternative way of gaining a diploma by means of passing a series of standardized tests. Martha, too, has been taught about birth control.

The individual counselor in each of these cases is called a "community woman." This is the name the project has given to that older woman from each girl's community with whom she is paired for the 18-month duration of the program. This specially selected woman not only acts as a role model but gives the teen personal encouragement, support, and practical help. She assists the girl in establishing and working toward personal goals, puts her in touch with various available health, educational, and vocational services, and helps identify special needs.

These women are performing a wide variety of services, including meeting with teens (and sometimes their parents, as well) in discussion groups, helping teen mothers arrange day care for children, keeping in touch with their school counselors, and accompanying them to clinics and hospitals. Staff members from the National Council of Negro Women have developed and are overseeing the training of "community women."

Employability training or education and career guidance are among the most pressing needs of these very young mothers. Some of the young women have been estranged from the school system for a long period of time, and need help in reconnecting and in identifying alternative educational or vocational training programs. The project draws upon the resources of the government's Work Incentive Program, the agency that helps welfare-eligible women with issues of work and training.

The Redirection project works to link teens to existing local services, and to provide direct service where none is otherwise available. Some of this help has consisted of tutoring assistance, recreational and cultural activities for the girls, and arranging peer support groups for discussions and classes on such topics as parenting skills, nutrition, and family and career planning. There is not only emphasis on goals and incentives, but constant efforts to help these teen mothers toward more productive and self-sufficient futures.

Project Redirection is a program which, at its conclusion, will be carefully studied and analyzed. It could become a model for future action. Meanwhile, 400 teen mothers are benefactors.

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