Motherhood mentors raise level of hope for desperate teens

August 09, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Chantrel had already been a mother for a lot of years before she found herself pregnant in the ninth grade.

The oldest child of a single mother in the grip of substance abuse, Chantrel had long mothered two younger brothers. So after Chantrel moved out at 14 and after Martees was born, 7-year-old Brandon moved in with her.

When Chantrel found herself pregnant again at 19 -- unemployed, unmarried and caring for two children, a junior high dropout on public assistance -- she was exhausted and desperate.

"I was a lost soul," says Chantrel as she cradles 4-month-old Darries.

Motherhood is taught, for better or worse, by the mothers who have gone before us. Chantrel wanted to be a good mother to her children, but she did not know how.

When Chantrel reached out, she found PANDA, a program run by Parents Anonymous of Maryland that teaches teens how to be successful parents. Veronica Land-Davis, the program manager, delicately paired Chantrel with Cathy Fox, a nurse technician at Sinai Hospital who had volunteered for PANDA to fulfill graduate school requirements.

A mother of an 18- and a 20-year-old, Cathy's job would be to do more than be there in the night for Chantrel's tearful phone calls. She would teach PANDA's detailed parenting curriculum, and jump-start Chantrel's education.

"I was wondering if I could do this," says Cathy, who has long since fulfilled her academic requirements but has continued to be Chantrel's mentor for more than a year. "I have a 20-year-old, too, but I still didn't know.

"When I first met Chantrel, she was very shy. She needed love and somebody who could tell her she could do it."

"I felt like I didn't have anybody," says Chantrel. "I needed more than a hug or a friend. I needed a dependable person.

"So many times, I would get up in the morning and say, 'I'm not going to do that today. I'll do it tomorrow.' Miss Cathy keeps me on track."

Chantrel returns to school this month. She hopes for a degree in social work. She is on birth control. "This is my time," she says.

PANDA mentors such as Cathy Fox are volunteers, and that sends a powerful message. Chantrel feels as if she must be important if Cathy is spending so much time with her.

And it takes a great deal more time than the weekly home visits PANDA suggests to rebuild a young woman's self-esteem, to teach her to be a good parent, to guide her through the government labyrinths of education, job training, health care, day care and public assistance.

But PANDA is there as a surrogate mother to the surrogate mothers.

"We have training sessions for them and meetings where they can vent their feelings," says Ms. Land-Davis. "They feel hopeless and powerless. They are worn out trying to get along with the boyfriend or the manipulating grandmother. And most mentors are rescuers by nature. It is hard for them to let the teen deal with things herself."

Just finding the teen mothers is a challenge. The girls change addresses constantly -- evicted or fleeing from domestic violence, alcoholism or sexual abuse.

The goals of PANDA are often very modest. "If a girl isn't getting up and getting dressed and she isn't dressing her baby, our first measureable goal will be to get her out of bed," says Ms. Land-Davis.

PANDA is small in scope -- there are only enough mentors for 30 girls, and the waiting list is long -- but it appears to work. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the girls either stay in school or go back for a GED during their PANDA year. There is only a 2 percent repeat pregnancy rate. "They don't need another baby. They love themselves," says Ms. Land-Davis.

And perhaps girls like Chantrel can learn to love their own mothers.

"My mother, being a lady enticed by substance abuse, was a lost soul herself," says Chantrel, "but she was the best mother that she could be.

"The things that happen in life leave a scar, and it is passed on. There has to be a way to break the cycle. I want my children to be responsible and independent. I don't want them to repeat the cycle. I want better for them."

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