Seeing the plus sign emerge on a pregnancy test releases a rush of emotions inside millions of new parents in the United States every year. But for a number of women between the ages of 14-19 (200,000 in 2017), the news of the growing life within is often overshadowed by a devastating reality.
“I was so scared,” said Kassandra, a 22-year-old mother and participant in the Teen Success, Inc. program in San Jose, California. In 2012, as a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, she found out she was pregnant with her son Jonathan, who is now six-years-old.
In her home state of California, there are over 20,000 births to teens every year—equal to 714 classrooms full of high school students. In fact, there are 60 new pregnant teenagers each day in California.
For Kassandra, the news was unexpected. “I didn’t know what to do. I went to Planned Parenthood and they told me I was three and a half weeks pregnant. I walked home from the clinic thinking about how to tell my parents.”
Kassandra grew up in a mid- to low-income religious home. Her mother was from Mexico and her father worked at a hardware plant and earned his certification as an HVAC contractor. They met at church. There were always bills to be paid.
“I noticed a lot of things the other kids had that I didn’t and it bothered me growing up,” she remembers. “I couldn’t be or do things that the other kids could.”
Her sophomore year, Kassandra walked home from the Planned Parenthood clinic, not sure how her parents would take the news.
“Why are you home? Why are you not at school?” her mom asked when Kassandra walked in the door.
“I have to tell you something,” she said.
After hearing her daughter’s news, Kassandra’s mother was in shock. She loosed a barrage of questions. How could you do this? When did this happen? Are you going to keep it? “I didn’t have any answers,” Kassandra said.
Her father didn’t talk to her for a week. He didn’t have much to say.
The baby’s father, who was about to turn 17 at the time, was also shocked. Fortunately, he has been there for Kassandra and their son “since day one,” Kassandra said. “He’s a good dad.”
Kassandra’s parents took a few weeks to process and let the news sink in, but they have been caring and supportive ever since. Yet, even with supportive parents, navigating the hurdles ahead would be prove to be more than challenging.
According to statistics, Kassandra walked the hallways of her high school with less than a 50 percent chance of graduating. Less than two percent of teenage mothers continue on to earn a college degree by age 30.
When the word got out, her teachers treated her differently. Students talked about her. There was drama with other students.
“At the beginning I skipped school a lot because I felt really sick and didn’t feel welcome,” Kassandra said. “I felt alone.”
Her story could’ve played out the way it does for thousands of other teen mothers every year—dropping out of school, abandoned, stigmatized, living in poverty, dependent on public assistance, and often in poor health.
But not for Kassandra.
At the beginning of her pregnancy, a nurse had handed her a flyer that contained information about Teen Success, Inc., a nonprofit in her hometown that helps underserved teen mothers and their children graduate successfully and become self-sufficient.
Since 2011, Teen Success has helped to uplift teenage mothers by focusing on the resilient power of a mother's love. The child becomes the mom’s motivation to succeed and to provide a better life.
A month and a half after she found out she was pregnant, Kassandra began meeting one-on-one with a Teen Success Advocate and attending weekly support group meetings with other teen mothers.
“The first time I went I was a little nervous but I felt welcomed,” said Kassandra. “I didn’t feel welcomed anywhere for awhile, but [at Teen Success] I felt I could vent and get support. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Teen Success has an 18-month model to prepare teen mothers for the parenting road ahead. For example, members spend an average of 15 minutes a day reading to their child, a practice that has been proven to generate higher educational outcomes for the child later in life. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are 3-4 times more likely to drop out in later years. It’s a significant step in a child’s development that teen mothers may not know about. The Teen Success program ensures that it happens.
At the support group, staff and other young moms with kids of varying ages listen to each others’ stories of struggles and victories and share helpful advice.
“They encourage breastfeeding and the health benefits that come from that,” said Kassandra. “They really encouraged reading and singing and playing with Jonathan. They also said don’t forget about ourselves. We need time for ourselves. That little break to go take a walk or a simple bubble bath or going on a date can mean a lot. Self care is very important.”
Teen Success also assists teen mothers in achieving their educational and career goals. Coaches, or “Advocates,” work with teen mothers and their families to navigate their educational options, enroll in school, and receive support to overcome barriers to their graduation. For example, Kassandra’s Advocate, Alexandra, helped her edit her resume to make it stronger. The relationship with her Advocate is deeply personalized and nimble—they check in once a week and talk through more personal things that aren’t always a fit for the group setting.
Relationships are at the center of both components of the program, resulting in a stable self-built belief in oneself.
Kassandra graduated from high school on-time and with high grades, due largely to her participation in Teen Success. She is now enrolled in Teen Success’ post graduate program and is going to graduate with a two-year college degree later this year. She also plans to continue her education towards earning a bachelor’s degree in Nursing.
Kassandra’s success story is one of many. Teen Success has achieved similar outcomes for over 1,400 other teen mothers and their children in the Bay Area and spanning throughout California and Nevada.
Whereas only 38 percent of teen mothers graduate from high school nationally, 93 percent of Teen Success’ members who complete the program graduate from high school, and go on to achieve higher-compensated jobs, such as a security guard, registered nurse, or social worker, than they would without a high school diploma.
In 2013, Teen Success started offering scholarships of $4,000-$5,000 to its participants to help with school credits, books, bills, and gas. Kassandra has earned two.
Kassandra said having a newborn can be overwhelming, but “he changed my life. Before I had him I wasn’t in the best place, I was out with friends, drinking and smoking, I didn’t care about my future, and what education could give me. Then I had him and school became important. Without education it would be very difficult to support my family. It’s what’s best for my son and I want the best for [him].”
The message she wishes to send other teen moms who may be feeling hopeless is this:
“Your life is not over. Get that thought out of your head completely. Yes, it will be hard. But there are a lot of great people who do want to help you. Just because you have a son or daughter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue your education or stop doing what you want to do. Keep getting better. Think of your child as your strength and motivation. My son is mine.”