Program helps young moms finish high school

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Ashley Avilla never attended her junior prom or had her picture appear in a high school yearbook.

The typical teenage friendships or crushes were foreign to her; no need to carry books or write a term paper.

The reason is because Avilla, 20, never attended high school, although she once registered. She was homeless by age 14, was turned on to drugs and alcohol on the streets, and even sold drugs for cash.

'I was scared. I didnt know what to do and I was staying wherever I could,' she said. 'My mind was going crazy, and I was doing drugs and alcohol just about every day. I was running the streets, going to different parties and causing trouble.'

By age 17, she gave birth to her son, A.J. Jones. Soon after, she met her present fiancŽ and gave birth to her daughter, Malyah Sommers, in early 2006. She was a teen mother without a high school diploma.

'I wasnt ready to have a baby, but Im grateful I had them at a young age,' she said. 'They made me realize what I was doing, and it changed my life.'

The young woman whose eyes depict years of pain is no longer homeless and has quit her drug and alcohol abuse because she doesnt want her children 'to see what I did.'

Her arrow began to straighten three years ago when Avilla became aware of Cal-Learn Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program, which is supported by Planned Parenthood: Shasta-Diablo. The program provides prenatal and support services including health and education to high-risk populations.

For Avilla, the program pushed her to attend classes and receive her GED from the Fairfield Suisun Adult School. Today, Avilla will be part of the 2007 graduating class along with more than 45 teen parents.

'I want to go to college, I want have a home and afford whatever I can for my kids,' Avilla said. 'I dont want to worry about paying the rent or how my kids will be taken care of. I just want to give them what I didnt have.'

The program

Deborah Cudmore, a case manager at Cal-Learn, oversees 49 clients, including Avilla.

She has been working in the program for nine years and noticed the age of pregnant teenagers is inching toward the mere age of 12.

'Ive gone to a home where a client is sitting on the floor, pregnant and playing with Barbies,' she said. 'Its happening more and more often.'

At one time, Cudmore recalls, a 16-year-old pregnant girl was considered young. Now, she said without hesitation, girls between 13 and 14 are considered the young group.

'We look 16 years old and now say it isnt as high a risk. But we still do have the 12-year-olds trickling in. Theyre getting younger,' said Cudmore, who added that Solano County has an average of 600 pregnant teens each year.

But there is hope. Several county programs and support services have collaborated to provide assistance for pregnant teens, such as the Teen and African American Prenatal Initiative, Planned-Parenthood, Black Infant health, Prenatal Care Guidance, Latino Family Services and Youth and Family Services.

In Solano County, according to Planned Parenthood, nearly 80 percent of teens who are provided case management services and support go on to receive their high school diploma or GED.

'Its hard enough to make it through high school as a regular teenager, but there are more obstacles and barriers as a pregnant teen,' Cudmore said. 'This is a wonderful program, and I know were making differences.'

Teenage mom

Avilla had heard the word 'abstinence' before she became pregnant. She knew the consequences but took her chances.

'I really dont know the reason. I think it was more like I felt grown up and I could do what I wanted,' she said. 'It was another thing to experience.'

She now looks back at her teenage years and, to no surprise, holds a different perspective for incoming teens.

'Respect yourself and your body. Always think before you do things and ask yourself is it what you want or what you deserve,' she said. 'Always think of ways you can get to that better point in your life.'