'What can we do to help?'

January 17, 1995|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Sun Staff Writer

By now, Samala and Douglas Blake should have moved into their own apartment, finished their education and been well on their way to a better life.

But life has not been easy for the young Annapolis couple, the first people to sign up for an innovative Anne Arundel County program designed to keep families together and off welfare.

They are still living with Doug's father, have not completed their course work and may need another six months before they can stand on their own financial feet.

Original plans were for them to spend six months on the county's Community-Directed Assistance Program (C-DAP), which took the money they would have received in monthly AFDC checks and put it toward finding jobs, housing and transportation. Their contract ended Jan. 1.

The county wanted to help them "before they became caught up in the welfare cycle," said Edward R. Bloom, director of Anne Arundel County's social services.

Things went well for several months, then Doug, 21, said he was too tired to attend the GED classes he needed. Samala, 18, took some of her child-care classes but missed others because of problems in finding a ride and a baby-sitter.

Four months into the program, Doug started avoiding his sponsors. At the last minute, the couple canceled a meeting with the church members who vowed to help them. A week before Christmas, Doug was fired from his job making clothing racks. Car trouble and trips to the doctor with his daughter, Darion, made him late a few mornings.

His sponsors and case workers didn't find out until four days later. They were surprised.

"He stumbled," Miriam Stanicic, a case worker, said to Samala during a Dec. 19 sponsor's meeting. "We all do that occasionally. We look at you as an adopted family. What can we do to help?"

The meeting at the Family Services Center at the county Department of Social Services was supposed to celebrate the couple's achievements. But the mood was tense. Only Samala and her baby showed up.

"We have to keep going," Samala said during that meeting. "But we are going to need help. I'm going to try to find a job, but I can't find a baby-sitter."

Doug had been dodging his sponsors because he thought they would "fuss" about him not getting his GED, she said. Now he was embarrassed to say he lost his job -- the job his sponsors got him.

Doug's unemployment presented a problem for the family. Because they are married and living together, they can't get Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the country's main welfare program. However, splitting up was not an option, said Samala.

The Rev. Hulan Marshall of Second Chance Ministry, the couple's sponsors, told Samala he thought the other sponsors would be willing to give the couple another try. This time, however, their focus would change. "I think we focused more on Doug than you," Mr. Marshall said. "We need to look at . . . your employment, your development."

They will meet sometime this month to draw up the final plans.

What troubles Mr. Marshall and Sam Hawkins, another sponsor, is why the Blakes, who started the program with such promise, seemed to fizzle in the final months. Mr. Marshall thinks he has an explanation.

"Look at their ages," he said. "They are young kids. They are going to make the same stupid mistakes that any other teen-agers make."

The sponsors quickly learned they had to push Samala and Doug. It was not enough simply to tell Doug he had to get a job and a GED, or that Samala would have to study hard to get a day-care license.

The young couple also had to learn how to budget their money, while juggling the double-barreled responsibilities of being newlyweds and new parents.

"It was overwhelming for them," said Mr. Marshall.

Still, it would be wrong to call their experience a failure.

"We have seen a change in their life expectations," said Remy Whaley, the project manager. "Given the fact that they come from families who have relied on government assistance all their lives, and they don't want that, that's a major change in their lives."

She said C-DAP has helped the couple stabilize their lives and form a family, both keys to a successful future.

The sponsors note that in less than a year, Samala graduated from high school, married Doug, had a baby and joined the program. Doug found a job. They learned how to take care of their baby girl, Darion.

"They have come a long way," Ms. Whaley said.

For Samala, one important difference between her and many of her high school friends who became young mothers is that she wears a band of gold on her left ring finger.

"She married the father of her child," Mr. Marshall said. "Marriage has put her in a different social situation."

Although she never thought to have an abortion when she was pregnant, she said she would consider that option if she gets pregnant in the near future. "I don't want another one right now," she said. "If she started crying, the other would too, and oh my God. Maybe later when Darion sleeps through the night or is in school or something."

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