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Breaking the Cycle of Teenage Pregnancy

Breaking the Cycle of Teenage Pregnancy

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community.  We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below

Local programs offer teen mothers and their babies a healthy start and a bright future.

At just 17, Elizabeth learned she was pregnant. At a time when her peers were daydreaming about prom dresses, Elizabeth struggled to take care of herself, let alone a baby. Although she lived with her mother and mother’s boyfriend, she feared for her safety and the welfare of her unborn child. 

Elizabeth found refuge at Mary’s Shelter, a maternity home for pregnant teens and their babies in Santa Ana. Celebrating its 20th year of service this month, Mary’s Shelter has aided nearly 1,000 teens and their babies since opening its doors in 1994.

Elizabeth credits the supportive staff at Mary’s Shelter for her ability to complete high school, earn a bachelor of arts in criminal justice from Cal State Fullerton, and now pursue a master’s degree in social work. 

“At Mary’s Shelter, teen mothers are helped to have a healthy baby, finish high school and be prepared for a successful life as an independent single parent,” Executive Director Barbara Nelson explained. 

That’s not the case for most teen moms. There were 2,249 births to teens in Orange County in the latest report issued by the California Department of Health Services, or 20.1 girls among every thousand. Lack of adequate prenatal medical care, poor diet and unhealthy behaviors among teens contribute to at-risk deliveries of premature, low birth weight babies with life-long health problems. 

And this is why Mary’s Shelter focuses on breaking the cycle. Instead of treating teen pregnancy as a problem, the staff and volunteers approach teen pregnancy as a challenge in the life of a young mother.

Stacey Proctor, executive director of Casa Teresa, agrees. The Orange-based nonprofit offers a temporary home and ongoing support for pregnant women 18 years of age and older through its emergency maternity shelter and its long-term parenting programs, providing life skills training and education to guide the residents in achieving life-long self-sufficiency for themselves and their babies.

“No matter the age of a mother, if she’s alone, she automatically has the cards stacked against her,” Proctor said.  “It’s especially tragic when they are young as they are even more vulnerable. Simply walking next to them through this life change gives them the opportunity to have the best life possible for both them and their child.”

Programs like those operated by Mary’s Shelter and Casa Teresa disrupt the cycle by addressing girls’ physical, emotional, educational and spiritual needs. Girls in residence receive counseling, job and other practical life skills and learn parenting skills to ensure their infants have a healthy start in life.

“There is a direct correlation between poverty levels and teen pregnancy rates,” Nelson said. “Nationally, less than 40 percent of teens who have a baby ever finish high school. This dooms both mother and child to lives of poverty, carrying the cycle on to another generation. It’s not enough to have a healthy baby, you have to have a way to support your child.” 

“If we improve the life of a young mother, her baby will have a better life,” Proctor said. “If she is not going to live in poverty, her baby won’t live in poverty. If she has good health, her baby will have good health. The long-term impact on our community is huge.”

If you would like to learn more about preventing teen pregnancy or helping teen moms get the support they need to succeed in life, visit ConnectOC’s Nonprofit Central to discover local nonprofits addressing these issues.

Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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