At the Johnston County Department of Social Services, crying babies and children running up and down a hallway don’t deter a group of young women from learning.
Through the county’s Adolescent Parenting Program, these teen moms and soon-to-be moms in Johnston County schools are learning how to become good parents; kids are welcome.
“It’s helped me be a stronger mother for my son and be more caring,” said Devon Baker, 18, a junior at Smithfield-Selma High School. Her son, Alexander, is 1 year old.
Friends and family are welcome in the program too. Baker came to a recent meeting with Tanner Hutchens, 18, of Cary; he’s not Alexander’s biological father, but he’s promised to help raise him.
Baker said she’s learning a lot – from safe sex to staying away from drugs to how to share more of her time with Alexander.
Another goal of the program: how to finish high school. “With (the Adolescent Parenting Program), you can still stay in school and still learn,” Baker said.
The program is one of many funded through the United Way of the Greater Triangle, which started its 2013 fund-raising campaign this month. In Johnston County, the United Way support 14 organizations, including the Johnston County Coalition on Adolescent Pregnancy. Last year, the United Way gave these groups almost $300,000.
Suzanne Deobald is director of community impact for the United Way of the Greater Triangle. “The point is not going to be the fund-raising,” she said of this year’s campaign. “The point is going to be the impact we’re making in the community so that it inspires people to get involved and give too.”
To that end, the United Way doesn’t have a dollar goal in mind. Instead, the aim is to talk about how donations are impacting communities, Deobald said. The United Way focuses on three areas: health; education and youth development; and financial stability.
Hank Daniels, a longtime donor and owner Smithfield’s Sleep Inn, likes the United Way because it holds groups accountable. All recipients of United Way dollars must report how they spend the money. Also, Daniels said, the United Way has little overhead, with 85 cents of every dollar raised going to its member organizations.
In Johnston County, United Way beneficiaries include the Boys and Girls Club and Johnston County Youth Services, groups that cater in part to latchkey kids. “They have a place to go when they study, get their homework done, as well as have a little bit of fun so they’re not just roaming the streets,” he said.
Daniels said donating to the United Way means someone can impact many agencies with one donation. “As far as meeting the total needs of the community ... it’s just a good way to make a real impact in a lot of different ways,” he said.
That impact is evident in the Adolescent Parenting Program. Of the 116 teen moms taking part last year, only three had a second pregnancy.
In addition to monthly support group meetings, each girl is paired with a case worker who is there on-call, even when someone’s water breaks at 2 a.m., said Nathalia Parrish, supervisor of the parenting program. The young moms also receive baby supplies and food.
Parrish said the program helps the teens become independent and successful parents. “It allows them to be successful and move forward with their education,” she said. Some graduates of the program, which started about 20 years ago, have even gone on to get master’s degrees and go into social work.
The program yields unseen benefits, Parrish said. The support keeps the young parents from needing food stamps or their children from needing foster care. “It’s one of those things you can never tally,” she said.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the United Way’s help in sponsoring our programs and girls,” Parrish added.
Sharetha Oates, 18, a senior at Smithfield-Selma High, heard about the program through her school. Oates, who has a 6-month-old daughter, attended her first support group meeting last week but said she has already learned a lot. “Kids need to be before other things,” she said.
The support is important, Oates said. At the meetings, she can ask questions without being judged. “It feels nice because you can talk to them about your problems,” she said.
Roseanna Cruz, 17, a pregnant junior at Princeton High School, echoed that sentiment. “It feels good knowing there’s other people out there other than me that are pregnant and might struggle,” she said.