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Teen pregnancies in area down, but needs up

BY AMY FLOWERS  UMBLE

Fewer American teens are getting pregnant these days, a trend reflected in a local program that helps young moms graduate from high school.

“Our numbers are down, and that’s good,” said Joan Gillis, director of the Program for Teen Parents. “But the girls are coming to me with more needs.”

Gillis works with 46 teen parents and expectant parents through her program, which is run through the Rappahannock Community Services Board.

Of those 46 teens, 10 are homeless, she said.

They’re not living in a tent on the banks of the Rappahannock River, but the teen moms meet the definition of homelessness set by the U.S. Department of Education.

The definition includes students living in motels or doubled up with friends or family members.

Those standards allow students to qualify for expedited free and reduced-price meals and transportation to stay in school even if they move around.

These measures are aimed at keeping homeless students in school.  But as recent dropout statistics show, the measures aren’t always enough.

In Virginia, the dropout rate for homeless students is 18 percent, the highest of any subgroup studied. The overall dropout rate for Virginia high schoolers is  7 percent.

Add the stress of a baby to the stress of being without a home, and you get the perfect recipe for a high school dropout.

Gillis is determined to prevent that. She fights to keep teen moms in school with a recipe of her own: mentoring, support groups, parenting education, free baby supplies and help with child care costs.

But the challenges are rising at a time when Gillis’ resources are not. As the economy sagged, more area families lost their jobs and their homes.

For teen moms, that means adding an extra mouth to feed to a household already struggling to make ends meet, and an extra body to a home cramped with extra people.

Gillis worries about the extra pressure this puts on program participants, whose pregnancies already place them at high risk for dropping out of school.

Past participants said that the Program for Teen Parents provided the extra support they needed to stay in school.

“I would have had to drop out just to pay for day care,” said Emily Williams, who became pregnant while a sophomore at Spotsylvania High School.

She received help with child care costs, plus Gillis negotiated with a local day care center to get reduced rates. That helped keep day care affordable so that Williams could concentrate on studying and taking care of her daughter.

Williams is now 19 and a student at Germanna Community College. She hopes to become a kindergarten teacher one day.

But when she was 16 and pregnant, Williams worried she’d have to abandon her dreams.

She met Gillis, who connected the teen mom with YoungLives, a faith-based support group and mentoring program for teen parents. Gillis also connected Williams with classes in Lamaze, infant CPR and baby massage.

But the most-concrete help was money for child care. To get that help, teen parents must stay in school, develop a plan for their future and help with the program’s fundraising efforts.

An annual craft show and a handful of smaller fundraisers pay for the child care assistance, but there is never enough for all of the teen moms in the program, Gillis said.

‘A LOT OF STRESS’

The Program for Teen Parents has been helping area youth for nearly 20 years. In 2004, the program started offering day care assistance after one mom nearly dropped out of school because she couldn’t afford child care.

In 2007, the program lost most of its funding. Since then, it has been offered only in Spotsylvania County, as supervisors have continued to fund Gillis’ position part time.

Until 2007, the program also operated in the city of Fredericksburg and the counties of Stafford, Caroline and King George. Gillis would love to see the program restored to those localities.

“I know there is such a need for it there,” she said.

Gillis meets with teen moms during school and connects them with resources. But she’s also ready with advice and support—from suggesting one mom try putting her son in a swing when he demands to be held all day to reminding another not to bad-mouth her baby’s father in front of the child.

Gillis has been trying to connect the homeless pregnant teens with even more resources, such as the Spotsylvania schools’ homeless liaison, who can guide them to resources, work with their families and give them food, clothes and toiletries.

“These families are under a lot of stress,” Gillis said. “They need a lot of help.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973

aumble@freelancestar.com

WANT TO HELP?

Two upcoming fundraisers will benefit the Program for Teen Parents:

A  craft fair will be held Saturday, Nov. 10, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania.

A dine and donate event will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 5–8 p.m., at Lone Star Steakhouse on Plank Road; 15 percent of sales on food, including carryout, will go to the program. Also, people who brings diapers, formula or wipes for program participants will get a coupon for their next visit. 540/374-1565.

    For details on the Program for Teen Parents, contact Joan Gillis, 540/374-3337 or jgillis@racsb.state.va.us.

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