A community `support system' for teen mothers

``I didn't think I could tell my Mom I was pregnant or having sex. Because I would hurt her, and because she always talked to me about sex and contraceptives,'' says Bonnie Morales, 17-year-old mother of David, 16 months. Unlike her mother, who married and dropped out of high school when she became pregnant at 17, Bonnie is single and finishing high school at a special school for teens in her situation. She takes her baby to school every day at the Young Parents Project, an innovative program in the small city of Grass Valley, Calif., located about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento. The baby, along with other children of YPP students, gets plenty of attention from staff and a corps of volunteers in a nursery known as the ``infant development lab'' while Bonnie and other teen moms and mothers-to-be attend classes nearby. Students feed their babies lunch and check on them during breaks.

``We're a support system, so they can finish their education,'' says Marilynn Keeble, YPP director. More than 1 million US teen-agers will have babies this year, she notes, and studies show the vast majority of them never finish high school, beginning a welfare dependency cycle which often lasts much of their lives.

``It's not like they want to be on welfare,'' Ms. Keeble says. ``We give them career skills and try to get them focused on their lives, so they can get on with them. A lot of times they enter [the YPP program] in a family crisis. We try to help them get over the rough times. We try to help them be the best parents they can.''

About 54 pregnant teens and young moms are presently attending high school at YPP, learning math, English, and other familiar subjects. They also partake of a ``core curriculum'' developed by Keeble and other staff members at the school, covering issues relating to childbirth, parenting, contraception, prenatal health, infant development, and family relations.

``When the babies are real young and parents are finishing their education, having babies on site is ideal,'' Keeble says. ``We supply students with all the courses they need to receive a diploma. We're a satellite program for all the other high schools [there are four in the Nevada Joint Union High School District]. They return to their `home' high schools to graduate.''

About 20 young mothers have completed their education at YPP and graduated from high school since the program was founded in 1983. ``They're real good kids,'' Keeble says of YPP's students. ``If we weren't here, they'd be dropouts.''

In four years, she's seen a steady increase in the number of pregnant teen-agers turning to YPP for help. ``I don't think that increase is because there are more people having sexual relations. I think they've always been out there and there were no programs for them.... The scariest thing at the beginning of this year was a whole influx of [pregnant] 14- and 15-year-olds.''

Keeble's job is funded through the high school district, using specially earmarked state funds for pregnant minors. Other grant-funded sources are used to pay the salaries of seven other people on the staff. About two-thirds of the total program is financed through California state grants, and the rest from the public school system.

YPP links teen parents and parents-to-be to 35 different agencies providing services they need, and helping them get medical help and education on parental and childbirth issues. ``Dedication of the community is real important. The commitment of our network is why we function,'' Keeble says. Doctors, nurses, counselors, and other professionals support YPP, donating services to students.

Ms. Morales, who expects to graduate in June, has high praise for the program. ``It helps a lot, because they're there for you. Everybody has the same problems you do. You can ask the staff about anything. And they're watching your child for you while you go to school.'' She hopes to do some modeling, then study for a nursing career after graduation. In the meantime, she's working part-time after school and on weekends, receiving child care assistance from her working mother, and struggling to keep up with her homework. ``It's hard,'' she says.

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