At 14 years old, Svetlana Contreras found out her life was about to become more complicated than any homework assignment she could ever receive as a student at A.C. Reynolds high school: She was going to be a mother.
“It’s challenging raising a child. You have to make sure everything’s getting taken care of, including yourself, and make sure you’re caught up on schoolwork. If you have a job, you have to make sure you get into work. It’s all about that added responsibility,” the now 17-year-old high school junior says.
But for Contreras, she had help taking on these new responsibilities. During her first trimester, she signed up for the Asheville YWCA’s MotherLove program. For more than 25 years, the free mentor-based program has helped young parents like Contreras through both their pregnancies and adjusting to their new lives after having children.
“These girls need a support system,” says Tangela Bowman, who has served as the program’s director for more than a decade. “You have to have faith and believe in them and their destiny in their life.”
To do this, mentors are matched with a pregnant or parenting teen and make an eight-hour commitment to accomplish the mission of the program: prevent future pregnancies and help these teens graduate from high school. In turn, participants meet with mentors in the schools once a month, attend a monthly evening program at the YWCA and meet with their mentors for at least an hour.
For Contreras, her mentor was Bowman.
“I was always talking to Tangie about any problems I had,” she shares. “She was always very helpful and supportive.”
And it works. Currently, the program boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate. For Contreras, the program provided both the emotional and educational support she needed to follow her dreams as both a student and a mother. Though her college aspirations depend on scholarship support, the honor-roll student says college visits to Western Carolina University with other teen parents in the program have helped her realize her dream of going into medicine.
“I felt really accepted around all of them because they were in the same situation I was,” she says. “We talk about what we plan on doing and talk about what we plan on doing when we get out of high school,” she says.
However, Bowman states, the program is in high demand and, consequently, faces great needs.
“Our girls come from all different walks of life. A lot of them do have pregnancy medicaid and, yes, we do see a lot of low-income but we do see some that are not. This is the one group that doesn’t discriminate. You don’t have to have to be at low-level income to need the support. You can have money and still be pregnant and still be in need of support,” she says. “Right now, we have 30 girls in the program and we have a waiting list of like 40-something.”
It’s one of the reasons why the MotherLove program will be hosting a mentor-training session on Saturday, Feb. 23 at the YWCA from 9 a.m.-noon. As part of the training, people will learn how to be a mentor, how to build a relationship and about mentorship ethics. Though the mentorship commitment is for eight hours a month, Bowman explains that sometimes it can be much more.
“If it’s a really great match, nine times out of 10 with mentors, once their participant has graduated they don’t come back and mentor because they’re still following that participant. It’s a lifelong deal almost. That’s the kind of impact that’s being made in this program,” she says.
And when it came time for Contreras to give birth to her son, Ahmir, Bowman was at the hospital with her and acted as her advocate.
“We hope that people have a heart for these young ladies, young men or parenting teens,” Bowman says, adding, “We’re making a difference in these participants lives, and at the same time, they’re making us better people. We can learn so much from them.”
The YWCA MotherLove program is recruiting volunteer mentors to provide support and encouragement to teen mothers. A mentor training will be held on Saturday, Feb. 23 from 9 a.m. until noon at the YWCA, 185 S. French Broad Avenue. An eight-hour a month commitment is required to be a mentor. For more information, contact Director of MotherLove Tangela Bowman at 254-7206, ext.116, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a MotherLove testimonial video about the program: