- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2015

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Joan Gillis keeps a glossy graduation announcement in her office. The card features a photo of a teen in a bright blue cap and gown kissing a baby.

The announcement serves as a reminder of the reason Gillis works so hard as director of the Program for Teen Parents - she wants to see teenage mothers and fathers finish school.

In the past 15 years, more than 100 teen parents involved in the program have graduated from high school or received GEDs. But that success requires a lot of hard work - from the teen parents themselves and from a handful of dedicated volunteers providing services like mentoring, CPR lessons, support groups, infant massage, Lamaze and fundraising.

“It’s such a good cause,” said Karey Spears, a volunteer who runs the program’s annual craft show fundraiser. “Who wouldn’t want somebody to continue their education and to provide better opportunities for themselves and their children?”

The craft fair raises money to help teen parents with daycare, and Spears is so dedicated to the cause that she continued to run the event after moving to Florida in July.

Most of the volunteers who help Program for Teen Parents share the same passion for helping the young parents.

Sue Ruck, a nurse who provides Lamaze classes for teen parents, started working with the program at its inception. She was mentoring teen mothers and saw a need for a Lamaze class geared toward the younger crowd.

“When a teen comes into an adult class, they feel out of place,” Ruck said.

Usually, the teens stayed away from the adult classes. When they did attend Lamaze, they asked no questions. Without childbirth classes, the teens grew terrified of labor and often had bad experiences with doctors and nurses who didn’t respect their wishes, Ruck said.

She started the teen Lamaze class to empower the young mothers-to-be and to educate them about giving birth. The class teaches the same information as traditional childbirth instruction, but Ruck uses games and visualization to reach the teens on their level.

“When you allow them to have these experiences, they do so well in labor,” Ruck said.

While mentoring pregnant teens, Sarah Middleton has seen firsthand the impact those Lamaze classes have.

“Labor was scary to me as a young adult, I can’t imagine what it seems like to teens,” said Middleton, who runs YoungLives, a faith-based support group and mentoring program for teen parents.

The group provides dinner every Monday night at Grace Church of Fredericksburg, then offers games, support groups, life skills training and motivational speakers.

“They have friends, but that changes after they have a baby,” Middleton said. “And they don’t fit in with other parenting groups. They often feel judged.”

YoungLives also offers the parents a food pantry, diapers, baby wipes and gently-used infant clothes. In the summer, the national program runs a camp several local girls have attended_a two-week getaway where they can bring their babies and still have regular teen experiences.

Through her years as a volunteer, Middleton has seen teen moms go on to successful futures. She remembers one girl who graduated from high school while pregnant, then went on to college with the help of her family. Another married the father of her baby, and the couple started a successful business in Northern Virginia.

“If one life is changed, if one family is changed, we’ve done a good job,” Middleton said.

Gina Whitticar teaches infant massage techniques to teen parents. When the young parents learn the basics of infant massage, they bond with their babies, she said.

Infant massage also helps with sleeplessness, colic and digestive issues, Whitticar said.

And when the parents bond with their babies and know how to help them, they’re less likely to lash out in frustration, she said.

Volunteer Tammi Minter also hopes to help the teen parents learn how to take care of their babies. She provides CPR classes to the teen parents at the Spotsylvania Career and Technical Center.

“They have a new little bundle of joy and I want to make sure they can take care of it,” she said.

While most of the volunteers help the teen parents themselves, a new volunteer is reaching out to the parents of the teens.

Pattie Hinson recently started a grandparents support group, with meetings running concurrently with YoungLives.

Hinson became a grandparent unexpectedly when her daughter gave birth at 21. Hinson and her husband stepped in to support their daughter and granddaughter. That experience helps Hinson relate to the parents of teen parents.

“I wanted a different path for my daughter, but I wouldn’t trade my granddaughter for anything,” Hinson said. “Yes, I was given the job of grandparent at 48 and had to sacrifice, but now when I look at it, I wouldn’t do it any differently.”

___

Information from: The Free Lance-Star, https://www.fredericksburg.com/

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