Great Idea: Refuge in the Eye of the Storm

Sir Charles Tupper Secondary program helps teen parents graduate

In the midst of a personal crisis where chaos seems to be the only reality, there is a place in Vancouver that offers youthful parents a refuge. The Tupper Young Parents Alternative Program equips young parents who find themselves with the sudden and overwhelming responsibility of caring for a baby with the necessary courses, skills, and support. For those of us who haven’t experienced hitting the wall of an unplanned pregnancy in our teens, the anxiety and hopelessness is unimaginable. The cost of looking after themselves and their babies is often beyond the resources of these young parents. Their lack of parenting skills and experience, as well as their youth, make the responsibility of caring for an infant a daunting task. With the help and support of the Tupper Program, many of the students become excellent parents, and go on to finish their secondary education.

The Tupper Young Parents Alternative Program is a collaborative program between the Vancouver Board of Education and the YWCA. The core focus of the program is to teach students life-long skills and confidence that will empower them to meet the academic and personal challenges of parenting, not just while in the Young Parents Program, but in the years beyond their graduation. The following are some of the services offered to young parents and expectant parents:

  • Individualized, self-paced programs depending on student needs and goals
  • Regular, adapted, or modified courses
  • Support and advocacy of a full-time Youth and Family Worker
  • Licenced on-site child care at Emma’s Early Learning and Care Centre.
  • Opportunities for fitness activities at the Y.W.C.A.
  • Food Safe Certification and Foods 11 and 12
  • Parenting and child development credit course
  • Healthy nutrition and lifestyle credit course, which includes healthy snacks and meals daily
  • Bus pass assistance, if needed

The program has the capacity to serve 20 pregnant and parenting teens (13-19 years of age) who wish to complete their education in a safe, nurturing environment while also providing the same for their children.

Referrals are made directly to the program by school counsellors, administrators, and social workers; sometimes the students self-refer. Fathers as well as mothers are welcome. The curriculum focuses on academic and elective courses that lead to a Secondary School Graduation Certificate. The desired goal is to access post-secondary education through the ability to meet such requirements academically. Student progress is monitored through an Individualized Education Plan which involves the student, the parent/caregiver, and the program staff. The Tupper Young Parent’s Program assists young mothers to achieve independence and self-reliance by providing self-paced academic work, career counselling, health and parenting skills, personal counselling, recreation, and support. Two nurses are available for the students, one for the babies and another for the parents.

Rena Nadeau is just 17 years old and is a mother to nine-month-old Kaesen. When Rena first realized she was pregnant, she thought her only option was to drop out of school. Her school counsellor suggested the program at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary, whose mandate is to help young parents stay in school and raise their children. At first Rena was apprehensive about attending, but now with the support of the school, her family, and boyfriend, she is on the path to graduation. Her dream is to become an interior designer. She admits that getting herself and her baby ready and out the door each morning, then catching two busses to the school and daycare is challenging. Rena has learned to manage it one day at a time.

Some of these young parents still live at home, some are in foster care, and some live alone under adult-youth agreements with the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation. The Tupper Program receives financial help from the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School program in order to buy formula, diapers, food, and bus fare as well as other necessities for the young mothers. There is no money for all these needs in the Tupper budget. Finding affordable and adequate housing in Vancouver is yet another challenge for the students. Few people want to rent to them, even if they could afford the rent.

Attitudes towards teen mothers in North American society are certainly not positive, and include perceptions that these mothers are dirty, irresponsible, and a burden. Many of these young mothers feel marginalized, and believe they must prove their worthiness to be a good mother to their child. Marginalized women, including young Aboriginal mothers, often suffer disrespect from hospital staff while giving birth. Many times these young women are also behind their peers academically. One of the primary goals of the staff at Tupper is to empower these young women, through education and support, to challenge and disrupt these toxic attitudes. Their vulnerability should engender compassion rather than judgement.

The push to encourage these young girls to complete grade 12 before they turn 19 is because that is their “Cinderella Hour.” Once they turn 19 they lose free daycare for their children; foster care vanishes, as does access to the Tupper Program. The world is suddenly a less supportive place, as many of the services they relied on dry up. It is a huge shock for these girls and suddenly life becomes extremely difficult. Incentives are often used to keep them attending school. These can include diapers, wipes, formula, and gift cards. The staff is keenly aware of how difficult life is for these young mothers, trying to balance the needs of their child, with their own, and simultaneously deal with the pressures that come with attending school. As one staff member put it, “These young parents are going through the same things other teenagers experience, but often without the structure and support other kids have.”

For the mothers who are on their own, social services provide supportive living benefits to pay for rent, food, and clothing. These payments are rarely enough and the young mothers then rely on the food banks and what is available at the school to get by. It is often a lonely and harsh struggle. One year the staff were confronted with a sixteen year old who was 6 month pregnant. It was just after Labour Day and she was there to find some food. When asked where she was staying, she replied that she spent the weekend sleeping rough.

Their Youth and Family Worker believes “in the students’ capacity to be good parents and to blossom as human beings.” She emphasized that the staff at the Tupper Young Parents Program interacts with the students through the “lens of capability.” The staff work as a team to challenge any notion of being a victim, of being of lesser value. Once a week, for 10 weeks, a psychologist is on hand to teach a course called the “Circle of Security,” which is an attachment based model of parenting. This model is supported by research on infant brain development and emotional health. The Tupper program is underutilized in the community, especially when it offers so much: a secure and welcoming environment, child care, education, counselling, and the support of other young parents. They no longer have to go it alone.

By: Alison Zenisek