Appalachian agency offers friendship, support

To protect the young woman interviewed, her name has been changed to Linda G. IT began as a sadly familiar tale. She dropped out of school. She was confused, alienated, alone. And at age 18, she was pregnant and unwed.

At that point, Linda G.'s story began to depart from the script. An important person entered her life -- a friend.

There is nothing new about friendship, but in this case it was offered through an experimental program in Franklin, N.C., that is helping teen parents like Linda write happier endings for themselves and their children. The program, called ``Early Start'' (ES), pulls together the professional services of several agencies to give a comprehensive approach. But the heart of the program, according to the family educators who make it work, is ``unconditional caring.''

``I tell the girls to think of me as a friendly relative they can kick out,'' says family educator Alana Seeley. But like a caring relative, Mrs. Seeley is sure to pop up again later. ``We don't give up. We show up, no matter what.''

For Seeley and her two co-workers, Judy Peck and Alice Yuzzi, a typical day might include finding an apartment for a client, chauffeuring mothers to a picnic, persuading a standoffish father to hold his child, and coaching a young woman through labor and childbirth. ``We never go by a schedule,'' Seeley says.

Early Start usually enters the teen-ager's life soon after she learns she is pregnant. Expectant mothers aged 17 or younger are given priority, regardless of income. Most are eager for the help. According to Mrs. Peck, another family educator, ``The easy part is getting the relationship started. We go into their home -- we're on their turf. They welcome us.''

Many of these teens have dropped out of school because of financial strain. In this rural Appalachian community, geographical isolation may add to their loneliness. They often have no friends, transportation, or even a telephone. ``We break up their isolation,'' Peck says. ``We meet them on their own level, as friends.'' THE program is the brainchild of Lois Sexton, who serves as its director and is also director of Head Start for the Macon Program for Progress. While working with three-year-olds in Head Start, Mrs. Sexton became aware that there were lonely young parents who needed assistance both for themselves and in caring for their young children. She designed Early Start to help these parents give their children a solid start in early life. Initial funding for ES came from state and federal grants, but the program n ow subsists on state funds alone. ES, in its third year, serves only Macon County, a scenic tourist area that has a permanent population of about 20,000.

``Early marriage has always been a cultural norm for this area -- not just when a girl found herself pregnant,'' Sexton says. In the past, the extended family was a big help to these young people, ``but there's not that same support network today,'' she explains, because now many grandparents and other family members are working outside the home. This is where Early Start tries to fill some of the vacuum. THE program's three family educators operate under the guidance of Sexton and a five-member professional team. It's the educators' job to work closely with clients through pregnancy, childbirth, and children's first three years. In essence, the family educator becomes the key personal link between a teen-ager and community agencies that can help -- making sure, for example, that the young client attends prenatal clinics.

Early Start is flexible but carefully structured, with five basic components: home visits; exercise classes; group sessions (``mother's day out''); parenting classes; and classes in which the women make craft items for sale.

The home visit is central. Each family educator has 20 or more clients at any one time; she will visit most of them weekly in their homes. Like a ``friendly relative,'' she offers emotional support and practical help throughout the pregnancy. At present, Early Start is assisting 61 young women, some of whom entered the program in their teens and are now in their early 20s. About one-third of the women are expecting; the rest have children of varying ages up to 3. More than half are now married.

After a birth, the family educator gives the young parents guidance on caring for and enjoying their babies, urging them to cuddle and talk with the infants. ``We get down on the floor and show them how to play with their child, so the child will learn,'' Seeley says. If there are developmental problems needing attention, the family educator is trained to detect them early.

The goal of the program, in Peck's words, is to ``break a bad cycle.'' Not only are the infants helped to a healthier life, but the young mothers discover there is a second chance for them, too. Becoming successful as parents builds confidence that spills over into other areas of their lives. With encouragement from the Early Start staff, many finish school or take job training. ``We show them things they can do for themselves,'' Peck explains. ``They begin to get in control of their lives.''

Although statistical evidence is not yet available, the Early Start staff is encouraged by initial results. No new cases of child abuse are known among clients, who are generally in the high-risk group. Family educators also report short delivery time among the women they have coached, and fewer premature births.

Most promising, perhaps, is the low level of repeat pregnancies. Statistically, many teen mothers become pregnant again in two years, but of the 100-plus Early Start women, only three have had subsequent unplanned pregnancies. Early Start appears to help these young mothers gain control of their lives and make responsible decisions. For Linda G., now the mother of a healthy and engaging six-month-old boy, the ``friendly relatives'' from Early Start have meant ``a better outlook on life.''

``Before I met them, I wasn't doing anything, just sitting around,'' she recalls; but last summer Linda received her high school diploma. She is now taking job training and looking forward to going to work.

``Sometimes,'' she concedes, ``I wish I could go back to just being me.'' But like other young women in this community whose childhoods were interrupted by premature parenthoods, she is learning to cope as an adult.

Last of three articles on teen pregnancy.

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