On any given Thursday evening you can walk through the doors of Hope Pregnancy Center in Kalispell, Montana and discover a unique gathering of moms swapping potty-training tips, learning about child development, or kneading loaves of bread. This may sound like any other mothering support group, but as these attendees equip themselves for 18 years of hands-on parenting, they're also figuring out how make it to their 18th birthday as members of the ministry Teen MOPS.
According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 34 percent of young women become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20—and 79 percent of these are unmarried teens. Nearly 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers end up on welfare. In addition, children of teenage mothers have lower birth weights, are more likely to perform poorly in school, and are at greater risk of abuse and neglect.
For me, these statistics are all too real. At age 17, my life changed overnight. One day I was an honor student, the next an expectant mother. Embarrassed about my situation, I dropped out of school. My emotions were torn; I wanted my old life back, but secretly I also was excited about being a mom.
My boyfriend dumped me, and my friends moved on with their senior year. Yet there was a group of women who stuck by me. They gave me a baby shower and invited me to Bible study. Because of their influence, I became a Christian.
Fifteen years have passed since I was that pregnant teen. Now I give my time and efforts to Teen MOPS to help support young women who face the same struggles I once did. Affiliated with Mothers of Preschoolers International (MOPS), Teen MOPS not only helps teenage moms, it also provides an outlet for women such as me to give back the same encouragement we once received.
Opening the Doors
Teen MOPS started in 1995 in Modesto, California. The first coordinator approached MOPS International with the idea of an after-school club for young moms at the local alternative high school. Today there are more than 100 Teen MOPS groups in 32 states and 1 in Canada.
Teen MOPS groups range from small gatherings of 6 attendees to a group in Peoria, Arizona that reaches more than 80 young moms every week. Some groups meet in churches, others at schools or pregnancy care centers.
While the style of the group varies by location, most follow a common format, which includes a free meal, free childcare, and a meeting that consists of games, speakers, discussion, and creative activities.
"Teen MOPS gives girls a peer group and an identity," says Elizabeth Melvin, coordinator for a group in Lakewood, Colorado. "These moms can share their stories, fill in the girlfriend gaps, and receive support and advice from women besides their mother. The girls also provide transportation and babysitting for each other and swap clothes and strollers."
The weekly Teen MOPS gathering at Hope Pregnancy Center in Kalispell, Montana began five years ago. "Daily, we saw young moms who needed help, support, and a listening ear," says Hope Pregnancy Center Director Clair Beaver. "These moms choose to have their babies, and we need to support them in their numerous struggles."
Jamie Spaulding, who became pregnant at 17, was one of the first attendees of Kalispell Teen MOPS. "When I felt overwhelmed and confused, the leaders told me it was normal—every new mom faces the same types of concerns," Jamie says. "My mentor encouraged me to continue my education in order to give my daughter and me a good future."
Since attending her first meeting three years ago, Jamie has finished high school, is taking college classes, and has found a job. Her daughter, Margo, is now four years old and the joy of Jamie's life. "I love this little girl; she deserves the world. Teen MOPS changed my whole view of parenting. They taught me even teenage moms can be good mothers if we put our minds to it."
Marjie Shanks, another mom from the program, says, "I was 17 and naïve when I got pregnant. I moved out of my parents' home and dropped out of high school. I was in my own little fairytale world."
Marjie soon discovered becoming a young mom was more difficult than she'd imagined. Most of her friends disappeared from the picture, yet Teen MOPS provided true friendship and honest answers. "No mother is perfect, but we can find our good points and focus on those," says Marjie.
Learning to be a good mom was just the beginning. "I also became a Christian through the group. I'd attended church as a kid, but it was just a routine. After being mentored by all of these strong Christian women, I learned everyone makes mistakes, but Jesus is the answer. Even Christians sin; it's a matter of whether you ask forgiveness and learn from those mistakes," Marjie says.
For some young moms, this is their first opportunity to hear that Jesus loves them as they are. "I discovered when we develop a friendship with these girls first, they're willing to listen," says Tanya Flores, a volunteer with the Kalispell group. "I usually wait until a young mom shares her struggles. Then I explain my similar experience and show how Jesus can help in all our situations when we turn to him.
"Several girls in our group now attend church and faith-based parenting classes, and have accepted Jesus," Tanya adds.
Lending a Hand
The success of Teen MOPS is due to dedicated leaders who offer what these young mothers need most—advice, unconditional support, and caring arms in a world that's quick to point fingers.
Some leaders, such as Michelle Cherney from Mt. Vernon, Washington, chose to get involved because they faced teen pregnancy themselves. "As a teen mom, I was frustrated, isolated, and downright lonely. My old friends didn't know how to treat me since I wasn't like them anymore," Michelle says. "Our job as leaders is to help these young moms connect with others like them."
In addition to providing valuable parenting information and life skills, many groups also offer a MOPSMart "store" at the meetings. The girls earn MOPS BUCK$ for attending the meetings, bringing friends, reading parenting books, keeping doctors' appointments, or attending Bible study—anything that proves the young mom is making good life choices. They can use this "money" to shop for much-needed items at the MOPSMart.
"For those who attend and participate, we offer diapers, formula, clothing, even babysitting hours," says Michelle from Mt. Vernon. "Every mom's dream!"
"I don't know what I'd do without the MOPSMart," says Sherona, a Teen MOPS attendee and mother of two. "I get all my diapers and clothes there. It's a huge help."
Of course, no ministry is without challenges. Many groups need additional operating funds, baby supplies, and childcare workers, as well as people to give rides to the moms, since many of them don't drive or can't afford a car.
There are also the personal dilemmas. Some teen mothers come from dysfunctional homes, others have drug or alcohol problems, and all face the daily struggles of attempting to juggle parenting, school, and work—not to mention relationships. With so many obstacles, it's sometimes difficult for leaders to gauge when to help and when to step back. Teen MOPS leaders aren't meant to be babysitters, nor do they have the skills to offer counseling advice. Instead, leaders have to trust that being a friend, offering prayer support, and providing fun and enriching meetings can help move moms towards a healthier lifestyle.
"I see these girls growing up. There are fewer cigarette breaks and cell-phone interruptions; they become better listeners," says Diane Klein, a volunteer with the Kalispell group. "So many of the girls are now talking about God instead of just hanging out."
"They come in hard and bulletproof—but now some are tender, teachable, and affectionate," adds Jennifer Drew, a leader in the Kalispell group. "And they become more confident in their abilities as mothers. Isn't that what mothering support is all about?" tcw
Tricia Goyer, a speaker and author of Life Interrupted: The Scoop on Being a Young Mom (Zondervan), lives in Montana.
For more information about getting involved in Teen MOPS, check out: www.MOPS.org/teen.
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July/August 2006, Vol. 28, No. 4, Page 56