* In April, VIHA released a report showing that Port Alberni has the highest number of teen moms per capita in B.C. Now, in a multi-part series, the News examines who some of the teen moms are, how they are supported and how there is more to the issue than just a number.
Alberni resident Robin Mark strode through the doors of VAST after a morning physical education outside.
Mark, 18, had lunch with friends at VAST then left to pick up her 10-month-old daughter Penelope from Hummingbird Child Care Centre before heading home.
Mark will walk the stage at the VAST high school graduation this June. In the fall, she wants to attend North Island College in Comox and learn to be a veterinarian assistant.
“I want to either work at the SPCA or with an equestrian centre,” Mark said. “I’ve always loved animals, especially horses.”
Mark lives at home with her parents and younger sister. She’s raising Penelope on her own. “Her dad isn’t part of her life,” she said.
Achieving her educational goals and trying to get ahead in life as a young mother is difficult but not impossible, Mark said.
“The staff at VAST and Hummingbird do a lot of things for you to help you through – they care; if they didn’t they wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I don’t know if I could do what I’m doing without them.”
Mark is one of 18 young parents who attend VAST and have their childcare provided by Hummingbird, daycare director Nicki Bezanson said.
Hummingbird operates two daycare programs: one for infant to three-year-olds, and another for three- to five-year-olds.
The centre provides daycare services for families and young parents from September until June.
Hummingbird has a wait list, but young parents receive priority and are eligible for a provincial subsidy to cover childcare costs. “They have to be in school, not skip, and commit to providing assistance at the centre,” Bezanson said.
Young parents from the ages of 15-23 have used Hummingbird with the most common age range being 16-19, she said.
Hummingbird becomes a de facto social centre for young mothers.
A hot meal is served every Wednesday. A bus pass is available for those who need it and most do.
Most of the mothers are involved with USMA Family and Child Services or the Ministry of Children and Families, so help is available to navigate the bureaucracies, Bezanson said.
“It’s hard enough being a mom let alone a young mom so we try to reduce as many barriers as possible.
“We try to help them get on their feet.”
A staple at the daycare is the young mothers group which runs every Tuesday.
The group gives moms a chance to socialize and talk about parent or personal issues, or they listen to guest speakers. The moms get credit for high school family studies as well.
Young families come in dealing with several issues, Bezanson said.
Out of 18 young families who use the service, five are co-parent families (with both the mother and father present) while the other 13 are either single or in fractured relationships, she said.
Most young parents still live with their parents. Some live on their own but finding accommodations is difficult.
“There is a stigma about them. They are negatively judged by their peers and by society as well,” Bezanson said.
“When they come here they are parents with children and we don’t judge.”
Being gossiped about when you’re young and pregnant is something Mark knows about all too well.
She was in Grade 11 at ADSS when she found out she was pregnant. The gossip started when she started to show.
Mark endured months of eyeball rolling from other girls, lingering stares and gossip that wasn’t true. She finished the school year before going to Choices, and then VAST. “I’m a fighter and I’m stubborn so I stayed,” she said.
“What gets me is the girls who did it are going to be mothers one day; I hope they remember the things they said then.”
Hummingbird works with several other agencies to provide services to young moms such as Alberni Valley Drug and Alcohol Prevention Services (ADAPS), Alberni Community and Women’s Services (ACAWS), the Port Alberni Health Unit and Knee-waas House among others, Bezanson said.
“There are several services that wrap around them.”
The biggest challenge on the part of Hummingbird staff is remembering that they are dealing with teens and not adults. “They’re still growing yet and require gentle reminders about parenting and more patience,” Bezanson said.
Mark had difficulty coping with being pregnant at first. She hadn’t realized how parenthood changed her until she went back to school.
“The day I brought her to daycare I didn’t want to leave her there and go,” she said. “I love her so much but this is what I have to do for a better life for us.”
Most of the moms attend school at VAST which is located three blocks away.
The school has provided classes and programs to young moms since the early 1980s or 1990s, teacher Kama Money said. The school runs courses on a personalized learning basis and students work at their own pace.
There are 29 young families that attend VAST. Most use Hummingbird but others use other care centres or family for their childcare needs, Money said.
“We know that there are other young parents out there who aren’t at VAST but I couldn’t put a number to that.”
VAST offers young parents its close relationship with Hummingbird. It facilitates a healthy relationships for youth course; and it offers an employment and life skills program called Step-up.
VAST also employs five youth workers who meet with students regularly.
Transportation and scheduling flexibility are challenges moms have that other students don’t. Young moms need to get to and from school, daycare, doctors appointments and grocery shopping. “I drive and it’s tough enough. But they walk or take the bus yet they are at class almost every day,” Money said.
Teen parents have the choice of attending ADSS but most choose VAST because of its flexibility. “Moms don’t have set schedules and your kids always come first, so VAST is a better fit with their lives and achieving their educational goals,” Money said.
Mark’s goal has always been to work with animals and that hasn’t changed. “I don’t want to give up school because my pregnancy didn’t change my goals,” she said. “I’m not stressed about school with VAST’s schedule and I’m keeping my marks up.”
Not every young parent finishes their education. Some fall off the school’s radar. “But that’s life at VAST – they can come back when they’re ready and many often do,” Money said.
*Next week: Former teen moms who work with teen moms.