Most Wednesday afternoons during the school year, you can find several young high school students studying at First Presbyterian Church in Conway. Books and laptops strewn across the table, they dive into their homework with their tutors. Mya Ayika is a senior at Conway High School. She has been working to get her driver’s license and studying for her Certified Nursing Assistant exam. Her goal is to become an EMT rather than a nurse, because she doesn’t like to be confined inside a building. She also has a one-year-old child at home, which adds some urgency to the decisions she makes now, as well as a considerable amount of stress to someone just stepping into adulthood.
She has spent the school year pushing these young parents to not only graduate high school, but to also be strong, healthy, contributing members of society and to raise their children to do the same. “Sometimes, when they first come in, you see, especially after they’ve been alone all summer with baby, their confidence is kind of shaken, just because it’s a huge lifestyle change. What we try to do is we try to build up that confidence.”
Teen pregnancy is a well-known contributing factor to poverty in Arkansas, which has the highest teen birth rate in the country, and girls born to teen parents are much more likely to become teen parents. This can have a large economic impact on the parents and the taxpayers. Between 1991 and 2010, Arkansas taxpayers spent $3.3 billion on costs associated with teen pregnancy.
Conway Cradle Care is one organization that is trying to stop the cycle. Cradle Care’s mentoring program is currently serving 30 teen parents and is expanding. While several of the students were also born to teen parents, Cradle Care believes the mentoring program will help the children by helping the parents. “We provide a support system for them to be able to [succeed],” says Brown, “and we’ve actually just changed our logo to ‘empowering futures.’ And that’s really what we want to do with our students is we want to empower them.” They also provide information about preventing pregnancy and how to talk to their children about safe sex when the time comes.
Housed in the First Presbyterian Church next to Conway High School, the non-profit has been assisting teenage parents in Faulkner County since 1995, but the mentoring program is much newer and was modified this year. In addition to teaching the young adults how to be good parents, it now offers tutoring and guidance in areas such as personal finance, nutrition, and enrolling in college or technical school. “The number one goal is high school graduation, of course,” says Kelsey Powell, Executive Director of Conway Cradle Care. “You know, college isn’t for everyone, and so, of course, we gear our students toward college or technical school, but that just might not be feasible for them or beneficial to what they want to do in life. And so we just make sure that they do have a plan after high school.”
This year the services have been expanded to rural Perry County. “The counseling and nurse programs at the public schools there are very helpful with the students,” says Powell, “but we are the first organization that I know of to really get out there and bring them materials on everything from their pregnancy, their birth and the developmental levels of their child and everything the mentoring program has to offer.”
Next school year Cradle Care plans to open the mentoring program to more community members outside of the high schools. They also hope to add a male mentor for the fathers who take advantage of the program.
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