Great parents are not born, they are taught. We see young mothers who want to be good mothers but have not had role modeling. They are looking for someone to support them in that role. These moms love their babies. - Ann Gaasch, Executive Director of Family Wise
by Kathy Magnuson
"I knew that I would be alone and I wanted all the help and support I could get," says Sabrina, a single teen mom in the Twin Cities. Sabrina goes to high school, where her daughter can be in childcare, and then she goes to her job at a Holiday Station. She lives with her dad who is physically disabled. We found time for this interview on her school lunch break.
Much of the help and support Sabrina wanted comes from her mentor through Family Wise, an organization that promotes social change by strengthening families and community. "They actually care about you and get to know you," she says about their Bright Beginnings Young Parent Education and Mentoring Program.
Teen pregnancy rates have gone down, but there are still vulnerable, isolated teens who are parenting, according to Ann Gaasch, Executive Director of Family Wise. Their clients ("mentees") are often living in poverty and tend to be 14-21 years old. Many are new immigrants.
"Great parents are not born, they are taught - everything from how to sing nursery rhymes or how to read a story to a child," Gaasch says. "We see young mothers who want to be good mothers but have not had role modeling. They are looking for someone to support them in that role. These moms love their babies."
Mentors in the program are often moms with younger children who want to give back. Some mentors are older women who may not have had children. The program asks for a year's commitment, but often the relationship continues much longer by choice. They expect mentors and mentees to connect at least four times a month, twice in person.
"Every relationship is different," says Gaasch. "It's mostly about communication. Sometimes it's about problem solving." Activities might include getting a library card, going to a park or taking the mentee to a professional work setting to see what that is like. It might be going on college visits or helping get a prom dress.
Family Wise hopes for young moms to stay in school and continue their education after high school. They want to help build a strong, healthy relationship between the young mom and child. They strive for babies to be on track developmentally. And they want the mother and child to be connected to a community.
According to Gaasch, it can be overwhelming for mentees in the program simply to realize that someone cares for them. "That someone would volunteer their time makes a powerful statement to moms about their self worth and their future. It takes extra gumption to mentor a teen parent - and has extra rewards." It is a "circle of support," she says. "We can't always look to professionals for that."
Sabrina's mentor, Toni Forsland, had grown up in an adoptive family. She and her husband have had many foster children and have adopted four. Now she mentors.
"Awesome," is how Forsland describes the program. "At the end of our first meeting Sabrina asked me, 'Can I hug you?' I did and I told her 'I will be your mentor as long as you want me to.'"
Her advice to other mentors is simple: "Be yourself and be kind. If they need you, be there."
She thinks Sabrina will be a good mother. "She looks at that baby adoringly. She has her eyes on that baby all the time."