One Child Born The Care Center Flourishes As A Resource For Teen Mothers

The walls of The Care Center in Holyoke are decorated with vibrant paintings of flowers, sprawling murals, and black and white photographs of young women, some smiling, some serious, and many holding bright-eyed children they call their own.


The paintings are by students at The Care Center, and the photos are the students themselves, all teenage mothers or mothers-to-be, working toward a common goal: creating a better life for themselves as well as their children.

The Care Center first opened its doors 20 years ago, to serve as a resource for teen mothers in Western Mass.

Its creation followed one of the first formal evaluations of statewide public health statistics by the Department of Public Health; those statistics revealed that Holyoke had the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the state – nearly three times the state average. In order to provide support for young mothers and mothers-to-be, the center began offering courses designed to help the women pass their GED, in order to move forward with educational and career opportunities, and still offers that service at its Cabot Street offices today.

According to Anne Teschner, executive director of The Care Center, however, the support the organization provides has grown in size and scope over the years, shifting to not only preparing young mothers for the GED, but to also promoting the importance of higher education after the test has been passed, and addressing the potential of each individual student.

“We work with about 140 women a year,” said Teschner. “All of them have dropped out of high school and most are on welfare. Most come to the center reading at a seventh-grade level, but when they arrive, we tell them ‘hey, you’re 16, 17, 18 years old. We don’t know who you are … you don’t know who you are. So we’re going to assume you’re a genius, and work from there.’”

The First Day of School

And Teschner said the power of that message becomes evident as young women work through the program, first hesitant, then accepting, and later, often completing their work with a new attitude toward education and life that they never expected to possess.

Most of the young mothers and pregnant teens currently enrolled at The Care Center are referred by other agencies, including the welfare, or ‘transitional assistance’ system. When a new student arrives at the center, she receives a datebook, a dictionary, a calculator, and a class schedule. Teschner said usually, eyes roll and sighs get heavy at this point, as that new student sees a task ahead of her that she’d do anything to avoid.

“But within three months, the shift is remarkable,” she said. “Slowly, a sense of engagement develops, and she’ll become more interested in learning.”

And while one major goal of The Care Center is to prepare students for the GED, the experience extends far beyond rudimentary courses, touching on their overall health and well-being.

Borrowing educational models from various private schools, colleges, and similar programs across the country, the center focuses on offering small class sizes, a lively, educational environment, and maintaining high expectations. The programs are self-paced, and women study at the center for anywhere from six months to three years, while their children are cared for in the center’s on-site daycare facility.

Pregnant teens often take maternity leave, up to three months, but Teschner said they are the population that proves that The Care Center’s model is working; after giving birth to their children, many women return to school before those three months are up, and very few drop out all together.

In addition to math, science, and English courses, sports, art, and poetry are all mandatory at the center, and in the afternoon, students can choose from a number of electives, many of which were originally suggested by the students themselves.

On any given day, for example, the women might be practicing yoga or a hip hop dance routine, reading Shakespearean scripts, playing golf, or rowing in the Connecticut River. They can also audit a course at Holyoke Community College and participate in a humanities-based college course on-site called the Clemente Course, offered in partnership with Bard College. That course is open to women studying at The Care Center as well as other low-income women in the area, and includes the required texts, transportation to and from class, and daycare services. Upon completion, the women receive six college credits.

“It takes care of the barriers that would otherwise stop them from pursuing such an opportunity,” said Teschner of the Clemente Course, which is offered in 20 other locales across the country, but was offered first in New England by The Care Center.

Both the Clemente Course and the HCC audit option are also offered in part, Teschner said, to further promote the importance of higher education.

“Once the students pass the GED, we’re not done with them,” she said. “If they choose to go on to college, we’ll support them through that process. We stress how important college can be not only for them but also for the entire Valley. It affects workforce development initiatives and the overall economic climate of the area, and that’s a positive for everyone.”

Baby Boon

That message of promoting education has also received both local and national attention recently, raising awareness of the center as well as much needed funds. In May of 2004, the center held its first annual formal dinner and fundraiser co-chaired by volunteers Amy Jamrog and Anne Weiss. Jamrog explained that the goal of the dinner was to raise $50,000, but the Western Mass. professionals in attendance that night blew the goal out of the water, contributing double that amount.

“The checks were unbelievable,” she said. “The next year, we understood that people were going to support us, so we presented them with a different challenge; rather than starting all over each year with fundraising efforts, we asked people to consider sustained giving – three-to five-year pledges.”

That move also proved to be successful, raking in about $80,000, 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of which represented long-term pledges both large and small.

“We made it so anyone could contribute in their own, important way,” said Jamrog. “Some are contributing $10 a month, others more, and it allows everyone to fit that donation into their budgets.”

The success of those fundraising efforts led to another important bit of recognition for The Care Center; Jamrog, a financial advisor with the national firm of Northwest Mutual Financial Network, submitted her name, along with 7,500 other Northwest employees across the country, to be considered for one of 25 $10,000 awards given by the company each year. The awards recognize the volunteer work of Northwest employees by awarding the unrestricted gifts to the organizations with which they are involved.

“Normally, the money goes to major, national organizations, like the American Cancer Society, or to finance the construction of a playground for an entire community,” Jamrog explained, adding that her application was not a simple one; Northwest employees must submit detailed descriptions of the organization with which they volunteer as well as its impact on the community it serves and its mission, include a financial statement, and sit for a formal interview. “It was amazing, then, when we got word that this traditional Midwestern company was going to recognize a small center in Western Mass., that helps teen mothers, with a $10,000 check.”

Teschner said she’s still unsure what the center will use the funding for specifically, although she suspects some of the gift from Northwest may go toward new scholarships for students, new equipment, or new materials for some revamped programs in science and math.

Life Lessons

As she says this, a stampede of footsteps is heard in the hallway outside, and about a dozen young women filter into a classroom for just such a morning math class.

An instructor launches immediately into a complicated problem on the white board, and upon completing it, looks around the room at her students and asks, “Is everyone with me?”

A chorus of “yes,” “yup,” and “uh-huh” fills the room, followed by one woman who pauses for a moment, checks her work, then slowly nods.

“Ok,” she says to the waiting professor. “I get it.”

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