For teen mothers facing homelessness, mentors can make a difference

This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization, which created the Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen) campaign, inviting those in midlife and beyond to connect with young people who need champions.

My father was a minister and my mother was a nurse. I was raised in an environment where work was thought of not as a way to make money but as a way to fulfill one’s mission in life. We were encouraged to think about what we wanted our contribution to be.

My goal in pursuing a degree in divinity was to become a prison chaplain, but I ended up with more secular positions, first in a house of correction, then working with community-based criminal offender programs, and finally as the clinical director of a locked treatment unit for violent juvenile offenders.

It was successful and rewarding, but I had two daughters of my own with whom I wanted to spend more time, so I stopped working for several years. When I was ready to return to the workforce, a friend told me about an Encore Fellow opportunity – a position for an experienced professional – at Ascentria Care Alliance. Based in Worcester, Mass., Ascentria is a social services organization that was formerly called Lutheran Social Services of New England.

I got the job, and my first task was to bring volunteers age 50 or older into two residential programs for teen mothers and their children – young women who were either homeless or about to be homeless. The mentoring program I created in Brockton, Mass., at the Ruth House, one of the residential programs, has been the most rewarding.

I knew the mentors needed to be deeply rooted in the community, working women who had demonstrated resilience in their own lives and could be good role models to these young mothers. They also had to be a consistent presence for the mothers.

I’ve loved working with the volunteers. I meet with them monthly – mentors like Leona Martin, a professional recruiter in the health-care field whom I found leading a job search workshop at a library. Several conversations between us revealed she was also a teen mother. While fortunate to have a supportive family, she told me, “I wish I’d had somebody that was an objective party, that I could have talked with from time to time – somebody I could lean on.”

Ms. Martin and the young mother she was paired with have developed a close relationship. When I asked Martin what she enjoys most, she said, “Spending quality time with her. I listen; I tell her what I went through and let her know it didn’t stop me. I hope it inspires her to do the same thing.”

Aviva Rich-Shea, a professor at a local community college, has become an advocate for another mother, Rita. “I’m all about relationship-building,” she told me, “and because Rita was starting as a student at my community college, I’ve been able to keep my eye on her and make sure she doesn’t fall through the cracks.”

Their relationship took a little while to develop, so Dr. Rich-Shea was touched when she overheard Rita telling someone recently how important it’s been to have her there. “As a volunteer,” she says, “we often don’t realize how little time is required to make a huge difference in someone’s life.”

In our monthly meetings, when I tell the volunteers what’s going on with a young woman, they all work together to sort out how to help her. All of a sudden, you have solutions to problems. It’s incredible.

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