Last weekend, we hosted a storytelling and advocacy retreat for 11 teen parents and their children. Our goal was to help them become advocates for comprehensive education, medical care, and support services.
I am not a teen parent, and there is no way I can do their stories justice. But I learned some important lessons as the outsider in the room.
- Don’t tell them they can’t succeed! They have goals for themselves and for their children – and they’re working hard to meet those goals even though they’ve been labeled “disappointments” and “failures”. One told me about college recruiters who wouldn’t even look at her when she went to her high school college fair as a pregnant teen. She’s a freshman now – pre-law.
- We failed them. While their situations are all very different, they all had a few things in common: They only learned about abstinence in school. None had formal education on birth control. None knew where to get birth control. They are facing the consequences of a series of inactions by adults.
- Support is their #1 need. I asked them all, “How have you been so successful as a teen parent?” All said support made a difference. All have participated the state’s Adolescent Parenting Program. Many have deals with their parents – stay in school and we’ll help out. All said that access to child care is the only reason they’ve been able to stay in school.
- They don’t fit stereotypes. None were dropouts. Few had accepted WIC. (Many had been erroneously told they don’t qualify for WIC.) Many are still involved with – or even married to – their baby’s father. We even had one of the dads come help with child care. They hate being represented by the teen moms on MTV.
- They want to make things better for other people, especially their own children. All say they’ll talk to their kids about sex, and all say they’ll make sure their kids’ schools provide effective sex education. For now, they’re helping other teens: One speaks to 7th grade assemblies. One hands out condoms in schools. All want to be advocates.
I’m insanely proud of our teen-parents-turned-advocates, and I look forward to working with them in the coming months. Keep an eye out for them in our upcoming series of videos. I hope you’ll be proud of them, too.
A special thanks to the Ms. Foundation for Women for funding our work as a part of their Week of Action.