In Utah, Latina teens are not only becoming pregnant at an alarming rate, they have a markedly increased risk of second pregnancies. “Latinas Adelante” (Young Women Moving Forward) is a Youth Empowerment Program that has drastically decreased second pregnancies among its cohort of teen Latina mothers. Consider the stresses inherent in the life of a teenage mother: A young girl of 14 or 15 trying to understand how to be a good parent, while still navigating the challenges of her own childhood. So young, high school is as new to her as motherhood.
Now consider the young life of a girl named Aura. A U.S. citizen by birth, Aura’s parents moved to Salt Lake City and found residence in an impoverished neighborhood on the city’s west side. Always close to her father, Aura was devastated when he was deported the year she turned 14. She responded the only way she knew how: by rebelling and adopting a deleterious lifestyle.
“Growing up where I did,” says Aura, “you see lots of gangs, lots of teenage moms, lots of drugs and violence. When my dad got deported, it was easier for me to get into gangs, do drugs, and follow the wrong crowd than it was to do the right thing.” At 14, she joined a gang, dropped out of high school at age 15, and was almost 16 before she realized she’d drifted so far off course, only something drastic could restore her life to order. So, at age 15, Aura decided to get pregnant.
“I never thought I’d live past 17,” says Aura, “let alone make it through high school. I mean, I just never thought I was going to accomplish anything. So, I felt like having somebody to love, somebody to live for, would get me out of the life I was leading. I thought having a baby would save me.”
After she got pregnant, Aura did withdraw from gang life and returned to school, enrolling at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, an alternative high school that offers programming for teen mothers.
“My plan was just to graduate from high school and raise my child,” says Aura. That plan changed the day a new program was introduced to Aura’s class: Latinas Adelante. Designed to build resilience, leadership skills, and a positive outlook on life, Latinas Adelante offers Hispanic teen mothers the tools to seek a better life and achieve their goals. Aura recognized an opportunity to further right her course and leapt at the opportunity to participate. It was a watershed moment that inspired her to change her dreams of survival into dreams of success.
“We focus on self-esteem and self-worth,” says Social Work Coordinator Eileen Rojas, who also serves as Aura’s caseworker. “We try to get these girls to think about what they have going for themselves and what they’d like to accomplish in life. We try to get them to see the big picture for themselves and their children, to think about more than just the here and now, to dream beyond today.”
Coming into this program, most of the girls had no concept of future. They were too busy dealing with the immediacy of their babies’ needs and the challenges at home to develop any long-term, or even short-term goals.
“Sometimes it was a lack of support,” says Rojas, “sometimes it was something as simple as how they were going to get to school in the morning, or what they were going to eat. Getting them to see beyond that is a major hurdle for these girls. This program helps them get over that hurdle.”
Latinas who are already teen mothers have a higher risk of becoming pregnant with a second child, placing them in further jeopardy of dropping out of school and living an unhealthy life of extreme poverty. Recent numbers show birth rates among Hispanic adolescents to be the highest they’ve been in Utah in five years. Among Latina teens (ages 15-19), birth rates were 114.9 per 1,000 females in 2008, compared to 28.5 per 1,000 for white non-Hispanic teens.
Despite these odds, Latinas Adelante has profoundly impacted the girls in the program. Since its inception, only 6.6% have had a second pregnancy, compared to 18% of Hispanic teen moms in Salt Lake County — a reduction of 63%. Similarly, the program is tremendously successful in helping many of its participants graduate from high school: 72% (8 of 11 seniors enrolled in Latinas Adelante) graduated from Horizonte, compared to graduation rate of only 15.5% for non-YEP students as only 7 of 45 graduated.
“Latinas Adelante changed my life,” says Aura. “Not just in terms of reproductive health, but in a hundred other ways.”
In addition to providing workshops on pregnancy prevention and reproductive health, this program teaches girls how to protect themselves from HIV and STDs. It encourages them to embrace healthy choices that increase their overall health and wellness, and educates them on domestic violence and substance abuse.
“It’s all about building their sense of self,” says Rojas, “and encouraging them to make healthy lifestyle choices for their future.”
“This program has taught me that anything is possible,” says Aura. “It’s taught me to keep moving forward and look at the bigger picture. I’ve learned to respect myself as a person. And I’ve gotten my priorities straight.”
Aura was one of the program’s eight seniors who graduated from Horizonte, and today she’s a full-time student at a local community college, majoring in criminal justice.
“When I first got pregnant, I thought, I want to finish high school and I’m done. Then after I had my daughter, I was happy, but at the same time, I thought, What did I just do? I was scared, I was nervous. This program has been such a great support system. It’s helped me see beyond high school and taught me how going the extra mile is going to affect my child. I know now that whatever I do, my daughter is going to look up to me.”
Latinas Adelantes might be geared toward 30 Hispanic teen mothers, but its reach extends far beyond them, affecting another generation altogether. Whereas once these young mothers were subdued by the challenges of their own circumstance, empowered by this program, they now possess the means to rise to succeed.