Behind the statistics about teenage pregnancy are the young women who face this life-challenging situation, sometimes alone and almost always judged.
Even in the most supportive of families, many young women find themselves ostracized, deserted by the baby’s father and feeling out of place in algebra class. That’s why a program like Young Families Early Head Start is such a lifeline.
Britney May graduated from Senior High in 2012, a year after she gave birth to Aliyah. She’s married to Aliyah’s father and studying for a four-year online degree from Florida Institute of Technology. She is the first to admit she would never have finished high school without Young Families.
“We both knew we needed to graduate high school, but I would definitely have had to drop out of school — and my husband, too — without Young Families,” May said.
Now May is the parent representative on the Young Families board of directors, providing the valuable voice of a young parent. She said that in 2012, when she graduated high school, there was a 100 percent graduation rate from Young Families. That’s how effective the program is.
“They just accepted me for who I am,” May said. “I remember this warmth spreading over me when I walked into the Young Families room. At the time I was 16 and just found out I was pregnant. My parents weren’t too happy about this and I lost a couple of friends.”
Young Families provides no-cost parenting classes and day care for youngsters up to 3 years old born to teenage parents who are still in high school. May, now 20, said the program has also assisted her with marriage counseling.
Young Families Early Head Start is holding its first big fundraiser, Farm Fork Families, on Sept. 6 at Henry’s Garage on Garden Avenue. Yellowstone County chefs will prepare dinner featuring seasonal and local ingredients and food demo booths will be set up for guests to learn about new ingredients and how to cook them.
Tickets are $50 per person. For more information, call 259-2007.
Debbie Richert, executive director of Young Families Early Head Start, said the theme of sustainability for the fundraiser works on two levels.
“Sustaining a healthy lifestyle and an enriched educational environment foster a balance of mind, body and soul,” Richert said. “Young Families Early Head Start programs do just that — teen parents and their children receive the tools necessary to become sustaining members of the community.”
Erika Willis graduated from the Young Families program 23 years ago and has served as a board member for years, although she is not currently serving. Even though she had strong family support, Willis said getting pregnant in high school created hurdles she struggled with.
“The picture that you thought your life was going to be is just gone. I was an athlete and I had college scholarship offers,” Willis said. “Marge Eliason who founded the program had this kind of ‘suck-it-up’ approach. The ‘I’m not going to let anything stop me from graduating’ approach. She helped me be strong.”
Her son just graduated from college and Willis holds a master’s degree and works as the director of business engagement for a Billings business. She credits Young Families for helping keep her on the right path.
“It can help moms and dads understand that it’s going to be OK,” Willis said. “There is a real stigma attached to teenage pregnancy. In Young Families, they feel supported and not judged.”
Christine Dorris, 18, and Melissa Nelson, 19, are recent graduates of the program. Nelson graduated from Skyview High School in 2013 and works at a local bank. Dorris graduated in 2014 from West High and is just finishing a cosmetology course.
“Trying to go to school when I had a two-week-old baby at home and sitting in class doing algebra was hard,” Dorris said.
But being a mom gave her new strength and her involvement in Young Families helped Dorris fill the void left by the death of her mother when she was 21-weeks pregnant. And there are other rewards, too. With support and parenting advice, the young parents can appreciate the simpler moments in their child’s life.
“Just hearing my daughter say, ‘I love you mommy’ is the best thing I’ve ever heard,” Dorris said.