September 21, 2010

Hope for Teen Parents in WINGS

(Reposted from Arapahoe County Parenting Examiner)

Photo by ballison at stock.xchng

This was first published in a local newspaper in 2002. Because of its continued--if not increased!--relevance today, I decided the piece should be dredged up again.

In 1988, the members of the Douglas County community met to discuss the rising issue of teen pregnancy. They decided to start a support and information group for the young mothers and fathers. It would be funded by Douglas County School District and various yearly grants. Susan Anderson, a special-programs teacher at Douglas County High School, was nominated as Coordinator of the newfound Winning in New Growth Situations Teen Parent Program—or simply referred to as WINGS.

Anderson wanted to create a new type of program, different from the existing ones. The main objective of WINGS would be to provide support to the pregnant girls. Instead of blaming them and asking why they had gotten pregnant, Anderson says, “What good does that do? I ask, ‘What are you going to do now to make your lives better?’” WINGS gives the young women a chance to meet others in their predicament. Many girls stay in touch long after their time at WINGS has ended.

In addition to support, the girls are provided with instruction. There is a great deal of time involved with turning these young girls into responsible mothers. Linda Waterman, a Life Skills teacher at Ponderosa High School and an instructor at WINGS, is “a font of knowledge…a true expert,” says Anderson. Waterman coaches the girls on prenatal care, dealing with family members and significant others, birthing and delivery, nutrition, child development, and managing a home and finances. Many of the teenagers who come to WINGS are from disrupted homes and unsure of how to live independently—much less how to raise a child. Waterman and Anderson, both mothers themselves, have grown to be extremely close in their many years of teamwork.

As part of the program, the girls may become involved in Teen Parent Panels. The Panels are meetings with high school students to discuss teen pregnancy. The girls and their children sit at the front of the classroom and, one by one, talk about their personal experiences. After a brief introduction, the students (and teachers) are encouraged to ask any questions they may have. By talking to their peers, the members of WINGS hope to impact other high school students’ lives.

WINGS works with approximately 20-25 girls each year and has assisted more than 300 teen mothers and fathers since its inception. However, the babies and parents of the teen mothers have also benefited from the program. Towards the beginning of the program, a “support group for the new grandparents” was created, as well. Although they have the occasional special guest speaker—such as psychologists and counselors—Anderson says that “talking [to each other] is what [the parents of the teen moms] really need.”

Anderson continues, “[However,] my focus has always been on the teen mothers and fathers…not on the babies. We know if you help the parents, you [in turn] help the babies.” One of the ways WINGS focuses on the teen parents is by inviting guest speakers to their meetings, as well. Some of their past guests have included Tri-County Health nurses who inform of health risks and birth control, lawyers who talk of legal matters (such as custody battles), teachers of infant massage therapy and CPR, and even past WINGS “alumni.” It is thought that there is no better a motivator and no more informative a source, than a woman who was once a teen mother herself.

Although the girls are encouraged to come to the weekly afternoon meetings, complications sometimes arise such as lack of transportation or time constraints. Also, problems may occur with high-risk pregnancies (typically, being pregnant under the age of 17 is considered “high-risk”) and keep some of the expectant mothers bed-ridden. In those cases, Anderson calls, sends out informational books, and sometimes even drives out to the girls’ homes. When questioned about her good-willed nature, she simply replies, “It’s my duty to help those who come to me.”

Nearly twenty years after the conception of WINGS, many of the original advisors on the board have remained involved with the program. The Advisory Board and the surrounding community of Douglas County have helped continuously over the years. Sometimes they help by running “diaper drives,” which is when they receive or buy, compile and donate essential baby products the girls could not have afforded otherwise. The board has hosted many baby showers and graduation parties for the mothers and birthday parties for the children. As an additional means of support, mentors have become involved in the program. The mentors are community volunteers who help the girls in various ways: from donating money and baby products, driving the girls to their doctor appointments and job interviews, to inviting some of the parent-less teenagers to spend the holidays with them and their own families. Anderson holds an important role in connecting mentors to certain girls whom she feels would be a good match for one another…a match that oftentimes forms into a lifelong friendship.

Because of WINGS, the lives of many teenage mothers and their children are better. According to The Alan Guttmacher Institute’s Teen Sex and Pregnancy study, statistics have shown that 25% of teen mothers have a second child within two years of the first. But Anderson is proud to say that in the 20 years WINGS has been helping teenagers, the rate of second pregnancies (while the girl is still teenaged) within the program stands at less than 5%. Also, “babies born to young mothers are more likely to be low-birth-weight, to have childhood health problems and to be hospitalized than are those born to older mothers” (Guttmacher). But because of Waterman’s excellent teaching of nutrition and prenatal health, WINGS has had only one underweight baby.

Planning for the future is another priority with WINGS. Before such programs as WINGS, when a teenager got pregnant, it seemed she was expected to drop out of school, get a low-paying job, and spend her life in poverty. However, because of an alternative high school called Eagle Academy—which works closely with Anderson—many girls have the option to finish school at night and apply “work credits” toward their schoolwork. They are much more likely to graduate and go on to college. Anderson estimates that each year, about 90% of her students earn their high school diplomas. She says, “I cannot say how vital Eagle Academy has been to the WINGS program. This year, I’m predicting a 100% graduation rate!” About 25% of the graduates even go on to earn college degrees. What’s more, some of the students have proceeded to graduate school. However, of those who don’t go to college after high school, Anderson reasons that approximately 50% continue with some type of work-training program.

As an ultimate goal in the WINGS program, Anderson says, “[To see these kids] graduate from high school and college…what makes you prouder? Nothing! And later, meeting the little kids [who were born to the teen mothers], and seeing that they are strong and healthy and doing well in school! I’m not the smartest person in the world, and Lord knows I’m not the most organized, but I really care about my students!”

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