Fighting stigma of teen pregnancy

Ali Cooper was at a friend's house when she took the test.

"Positive," it read.

A trip to a Birth Choice health clinic confirmed it — she was 16 years old and pregnant.

Gripped by fear, Cooper wondered how she would face her parents. Would they chastise or stand by her?

The Irvine resident quickly decided not to go through with the pregnancy. She wasn't ready to give birth, she thought, only to be overcome by a different kind of terror.

"I was more scared to have an abortion than to be a mom," she said.

Today, her son, Cordell, is an energetic and curly-haired 5-year-old.

Although she didn't hestitate in saying that she wouldn't change any part of the experience, Cooper admitted that being a teenage mother had seemed like an uphill battle.

The baby was colicky. He refused to eat and alternated between screaming and crying. And his lullaby of choice? A vacuum cleaner or blow dryer.

For the most part, an exhausted Cooper raised Cordell singlehandedly because his father — her ex-boyfriend — was more interested in partying late into the night and sleeping through the day, Cooper said.

"I would call my mom at 3 in the morning," she recounted. "He would be screaming in the background and I would be in tears. She would tell me to take a deep breath, tell me everything was going to be OK and offer me tips on how to calm him down."

In that regard, Cooper was lucky because her family supported her and helped whenever possible. Most often, though, young unwed mothers are abandoned by disapproving, embarrassed families and friends who find it too difficult to relate to their plight.

And that's where Ali Woodard and the team at Fristers, which provides guidance to teen moms, steps in.

"Being accepted and supported is the basis for anyone to grow," she said.


'A critical gap'

Woodard, 48, of Irvine, is founder and president of the charity organization, which was originally conceived as an offshoot of Mariners Church in Irvine.

Woodard, who had become pregnant as a teenager but elected not to have her baby, realized that the resources and conversation surrounding teen pregnancy had not progressed much over the years.

She'd noticed plenty of effort to avoid unplanned pregnancies, but then the support petered out, leaving young girls ill-equipped for the role of motherhood.

"Fristers started out because Ali recognized a critical gap," said Laurie Beshore, an associate pastor at Mariners. "These young girls were helped through the crisis, but it was not recognized that they are in crisis for a long period of time until they understand what it is to be a mom and to raise a child by yourself. There are not many organizations that help past the birth of a child."

Based on statistics from the Public Health Institute, Orange County ranks fifth in the state for its rate of teen pregnancy, following Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside counties. A 2011 report by the Child Trends DataBank cites California as No. 21 with regard to teen births.

Shaken by this information, Woodard decided to collaborate with community agencies, including Cal-Learn, Nurse Family Partnership, Children's Bureau, OC Prevention Center and Adolescent Family Life Program, as well as high schools for teen parents, local hospitals and individuals, to increase awareness about Fristers' services. Although women flock to the nonprofit's five chapters from all over the county — every city has pockets of poverty, Woodard said — a large percentage come from Santa Ana and Anaheim.

According to the California Department of Education, 50% to 60% of parenting teens have been sexually abused, while 70% drop out of high school. Adolescent mothers also demonstrate poorer psychological functioning and struggle to hold onto jobs. In turn, their children demonstrate low levels of academic achievement and end up on the streets, in gangs or in jail, Beshore noted.

Without intervention, the cycle continues, but Woodard is determined to change things. She wants each child — the young parent and the offspring — to have a chance at a better life.

Young mothers between 13 and 24 can join a chapter closest to where they live and meet once a week for two hours, babies in tow, for a combination of classroom teaching, activities and dinner. They are offered parenting lessons, academic and vocational training and help with life skills, including improving relationships and determining how to identify a violent partner.

"Becoming a teen mom comes with a big stigma," said Woodard, pointing to the MTV show "Teen Mom" as evidence. "They are looked down upon, their future is discounted and they are told, 'Well, that's your choice and good luck.' Many suffer from depression and feelings of inadequacy. So we remind them that they are worthy and help them take the steps toward changing their future and their child's life for the good."

Fristers, despite having a full-time staff of about 17, is able to help youths primarily because of the contributions of its wide network of nearly 300 volunteers. They pitch in by bringing dinner and birthday cakes, taking care of the children and serving as table leaders and meeting facilitators.

Lisa Jones of Newport Beach says her reason for working with Fristers was selfish. Missing her daughter, who was away at college, she decided that she wanted to be around other young women. She didn't plan to volunteer for six years, but was riveted by the progress of the young women, many of whom she saw earning driving licenses, completing high school and walking away from public assistance.

"One night a week, they get a big hug, smile and night for themselves," said Jones, 53, of the weekly meetings.

When the mothers are 25, Fristers organizes a graduation ceremony, complete with a cap and gown for each, to celebrate their efforts toward becoming good parents. As part of the alumni program, the women regularly return for holiday parties and to work with other mothers, remaining as involved as they choose to be.


New beginnings

Fristers, which means friends and sisters, stays afloat financially because of donations and grants. Most of the aid comes from women who were teen mothers or whose children found themselves in the same predicament.

Beshore's response has been to call upon the Bible's teachings to love the orphan, widow and others who are hurting.

"If you can help a woman who wants to care for her child, you can prevent the pain that those children endure otherwise," she said. "It's easy and simple to feed hungry people.... But when you get involved with a person's life, especially one at a turning point and with an infant, it's messy. It's a long-term investment and it's not simple, it's not easy and it's not neat. It will break your heart."

In order to explain her unshakable faith in the work done by the nonprofit, whose Irvine chapter meets at Mariners Church, Beshore relayed the story of a baby-faced girl whose cousin first raped her when she was 8, after which she was abused repeatedly by her stepfather and uncles. She attempted to commit suicide and ended up in hospital, but no one from her family came to fetch her. Although still trying to piece together her relationship with God, she had her first brush with safety and acceptance at Fristers.

While it is necessary to help women in their time of need, Woodard believes that education makes all the difference. She says educating teen mothers who have experienced abuse and neglect is the way to get them to stop and think before repeating the patterns of their home life.

"Sometimes girls don't even know they're in an abusive relationship," she said. "They don't know that it's not right to be hit or slammed up against a wall. We open their eyes."

Aware of the red flags, Cooper, now barely 23, was able to leave Cordell's confrontational father. She recently began a much healthier relationship and is taking the need for education to a higher level by studying construction at Orange Coast College.

Asked how she feels about her life now and being a parent, she said, "I love it."

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