Teen Latino parents graduate from high school in Sonoma County

Florencia Hasson
Written by Florencia Hasson

Florencia Hasson

“Being a teen mom meant failure, only if that’s the way I saw it,” were keynote speaker Claudia Avalos’ words of inspiration to the 40 high school students that recently graduated the Teen Parent Connections program in Santa Rosa.

Medals, scholarship awards, heartfelt words and tears were exchanged at the program’s 18th annual graduation brunch and ceremony since their establishment in 1988. The faint giggles and sporadic cries of babies and children playing at the far table on the right side of the room, served as a reminder as to why the graduating students were all there.

Teen Parenting Connections is a program implemented by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services that helps young parents and pregnant teens find stability and a support system during their transition into parenthood. 78% of TPC’s clients are Latinos, making them the majority within the program.

Kem Mahiri, the supervising social service worker of the program mentioned three reasons for why she believes are the main contributing factors of having a majority of teen Latina moms. “Culturally Latino youth are often encouraged and expected to remain abstinent until marriage. This means that there is a lack of discussion and communication with adults regarding how to protect against pregnancy,” she explained.

Her second reason is attributed to the lack of access and correct information about birth control and its various methods, misinformation which is passed down from generation to generation. She ties this theory into the Latino community’s history of poverty. The final culprit to this statistic is the cultural value that “when a young Latina does face an unexpected pregnancy, there are very strong cultural influences against abortion. This still remains a very strong taboo in the Latino community,” Mahiri said.

Though teen pregnancy rates are declining nationwide according to Sonoma County Department of Health Services fact sheet, and equally so for the Latino community, Mahiri said that teen pregnancy is not valued in the Latino community. During my work here for the last 17 years, I have almost always observed Latinos families go into crisis upon learning that their child is pregnant”, she said, however “due to their high value on family, the parents do eventually become supportive”.

“If you can dream it, then you can do it! So keep on dreaming,” said Georgia Ioakimedes, Director of Sonoma County Office of Education when introducing Claudia Avalos, a former participant in the TPC program who now, 17 years later works as a social worker with students in the program.

Claudia shared her difficult yet rewarding journey through motherhood, bringing tears and smiles to the room and making the crowd feel “warm and fuzzy”, said Mahiri, who was her social worker from 17 years ago, and is now Claudia’s colleague.

When Claudia found out she was pregnant at the age of 16 after having been raised by a teen mom herself, she was constantly reminded by her mother of the hardships that are associated with early stage pregnancy. “Everything I read indicated that being a teen mom was equivalent to being a failure, full of struggles and hardships,” she said. “I did everything that I wanted to do and as planned, I just did it with a baby.”

A semester early after having her baby girl, Claudia graduated from high school and enrolled at Sonoma State right away. She completed a double major in psychology and Spanish and continued her studies at San Francisco State University, where she earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Claudia was the first in her family to go to college and has worked hard to raise her daughter with the hopes of her being the first to break the cycle of teen pregnancies in her family. Her daughter is now 17 and since then Claudia has made the conscious decision to have two other babies.

“Its not impossible, its learning how to overcome your struggles. My daughter motivated me, pushed me and gave me dreams and goals”, she said. Now her life has gone full circle and she is on the opposite end of the program, helping young parents through their journeys in parenthood.  

Maria and Kem Mahiri standing side by side.

Claudia Ávalos (left) and Kem Mahiri standing side by side. [Florencia Hasson/La Prensa Sonoma]

The TPC program has four main goals when working with young parents. First, they work to increase high school graduation rates and pushing students to continue onto receiving a higher education. Secondly, to ensure the health of parents and babies. Third, to avoid a second unexpected pregnancy, and lastly to encourage parents to become self sufficient through creating networks and links of support for pregnant and parenting teens.

50% of teen pregnancies lead to dropping out of high school and an absence in acquiring their diploma, said Ioakimedes, and within the TPC program 80% of students have their high school diplomas. In California 17% of teenagers have a second pregnancy, within Sonoma County, less than 5% have a second unexpected pregnancy in TPC, she added.

Dr. Ellen Bauer, Director of the Public Health Division mentioned the importance of the Heckman Curve, devised by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman. This curve suggests that the earlier the investment in care for a child during development, the higher the return, and this is a philosophy that TPC has executed in their work with the teens and their babies. Even after graduating the program, and after the program’s age cap of 19, TPC ensures the support of a social workers and nurses to those parents who need the extra care.   

According to the county’s Department of Health Services information, over the past 20 years teen pregnancy rates have been found to be continuously decreasing across the nation. In Sonoma County, teenage birth rates decreased 42% within the years 2000-2002. “While reasons for the declines are not clear, data suggest teens seem to be less sexually active, and more of those who are sexually active seem to be using birth control,” reads a teen birth fact sheet.

Mahiri speculates that the reason this is changing is because birth control access for young Latinas has improved tremendously.  Their resources have increased and they are now more likely to know other women in their families that are actively using birth control methods, which helps demystify them.”

As birth rates continue to decline, this holds true across all ethnicities, however the Latino community continues to hold the highest teen birth rates in the country, despite their 49% decrease from 2005-2007 to 2011-2013. In Sonoma County “teen birth rates were significantly lower for all races/ethnicities except Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians where rates were statistically similar,” reads the fact sheet.

With the help of the program, the 40 teen parents graduated from different high schools in Sonoma County, Creekside, Elsie Ellen, Montgomery, Petaluma, Piner, Roseland University Prep, San Antonio, Santa Rosa, Sonoma Mountain, Windsor, Windsor Oaks Academy, and others.

At the end of the ceremony, the graduating mothers came up to receive their medals of completion, many holding hands with their toddlers or with a child in their arms. To those parents, the medal was placed around the necks of the very eager children, making the room fill with laughter and smiles, and so it was; warm and fuzzy.

Mother and Child recieving graduation medal

Susan-Burnett-Hampson  from the DHS gives a mother with her child a graduation medal. [Alison Kempter/Teen Parents Connections]

Madres y padres adolescentes se gradúan de la ‘high school’ en el condado de Sonoma

Florencia Hasson

“Ser una madre adolescente significaba el fracaso, así es como yo lo entendía”, fueron las palabras de inspiración de la oradora Claudia Franco a los 40 estudiantes que se graduaron recientemente de diferentes ‘high schools’ en el condado de Sonoma, por medio del programa Teen Parent Connections.

Medallas, reconocimientos, becas, sentidas palabras y lágrimas fueron intercambiados en el almuerzo anual y décimo octava ceremonia desde su creación en 1988. Risas tenues y gritos esporádicos de los bebés y los niños que jugaban en la mesa al lado derecho de la habitación, recordaban por qué los graduados estaban allí.

Teen Parent Connections es un programa implementado por el Departamento de Servicios de Salud del Condado de Sonoma para ayudar a padres jóvenes y mujeres adolescentes embarazadas encontrar estabilidad y un sistema de apoyo durante su transición hacia la maternidad o paternidad. 78% de los estudiantes en el programa TPC son latinos.

Kem Mahiri, supervisora y trabajadora social mencionó tres razones por las cuales considera que la mayoría de las madres adolescentes en el programa son latinas. “Culturalmente, los jóvenes latinos son animados a abstenerse de tener sexo hasta el matrimonio. Esto significa que hay una falta de discusión y comunicación con los adultos con respecto a la forma de prevenir el embarazo“, explicó.

Su segunda razón la atribuyó a la falta de acceso a información sobre el control natal y sus diferentes métodos, además de los mensajes erróneos que se transmiten de generación en generación. Sostiene su teoría en el historial de pobreza entre la comunidad latina. La culpa última de esta estadística la atribuyó a los valores culturales, como “cuando una joven latina se enfrenta a un embarazo inesperado, hay una influencia cultural muy fuerte en contra del aborto. Esto sigue siendo un tabú muy fuerte en la comunidad latina”, explicó Mahiri.

Aunque las tasas de embarazo entre adolescentes disminuyen en todo el país, según datos del Departamento de Servicios de Salud del condado, y también entre la comunidad latina, Mahiri dijo que “el embarazo adolescente no es valorado en la comunidad latina. Durante los últimos 17 años que he trabajado aquí, casi siempre he visto a las familias latinas entrar en crisis al enterarse de que su hija está embarazada“, dijo, sin embargo, “debido a sus altos valores familiares, los padres finalmente brindan su apoyo”.

Si lo puedes soñar, ¡lo puedes hacer! Así que a seguir soñando“, expresó Georgia Ioakimedes, directora de la Oficina de Educación del Condado de Sonoma al introducir a Claudia Ávalos, ex participante en el TPC que ahora, 17 años después, labora como trabajadora social con los estudiantes inscritos en el programa.

Claudia compartió su difícil pero gratificante viaje a través de la maternidad, haciendo brotar lágrimas y sonrisas en la habitación, y haciendo que la gente se sintiera “cálida y contenta”, según dijo Mahiri, quien fue su trabajadora social hace 17 años, y ahora colega de Claudia.

Cuando Claudia descubrió que estaba embarazada a los 16 años, después de ella misma haber sido criada por una mamá adolescente, su madre le recordaba constantemente las dificultades asociadas al embarazo en edad temprana. “Todo lo que leía me indicaban que ser una madre adolescente era equivalente a ser un fracaso, lleno de luchas y dificultades“, dijo. “Hice todo lo que quise según lo había planeado, simplemente lo hice con un bebé”.

Un semestre antes de tener a su bebé, Claudia se graduó de la ‘high school’ y se inscribió en Sonoma State University de inmediato. Completó una doble licenciatura en psicología y en español,  luego continuó sus estudios en la Universidad Estatal de San Francisco, donde obtuvo su maestría en terapia matrimonial y familiar. Claudia fue la primera en su familia en ir a la universidad y ha trabajado duro para criar a su hija con la esperanza de ser la primera en romper el ciclo de embarazos adolescentes en su familia. Su hija ahora tiene 17 años y desde entonces Claudia ha tomado la decisión consciente de tener dos bebés más.

“No es imposible, es sobre aprender a superar las luchas. Mi hija me motivó, me empujó y me dio sueños y metas“, dijo. Ahora su vida ha dado una vuelta completa y está en el extremo opuesto del programa, ayudando a padres jóvenes en su viaje a través de la maternidad, o paternidad.

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