PACOIMA — One group of women arrives by car, secure, a lifetime behind them.
The other takes a bus, maybe two or three, lugging a child, and a future in doubt.
Each Wednesday, the two worlds come together in a cluttered room in Pacoima--middle-aged Jewish women offering hope to teen-age girls who dropped out of adolescence--and high school--to become mothers. The women teach them fundamental English and math skills, but, more importantly, to believe in themselves.
"I thought my life was finished," said Maria Campa, 19, who gave birth three years ago. "I didn't want to know about friends, school, life, anything. Now I want to make something of myself. I want to be a professional, and a great mother."
The assistance comes from the Los Angeles office of the National Council of Jewish Women, a group established in the late 19th Century to find a haven for female immigrants from Eastern Europe.
This time, the challenge isn't much easier. Many of the new mothers didn't make it past ninth grade and are trying to survive without a father for their kids. They live in poor neighborhoods and are a long way from supporting themselves. As much as they adore their children, they worry that motherhood has prematurely burdened them with too many responsibilities and will limit their future options in life.
But, with approval from the Los Angeles Unified School District, the volunteers prepare them for examinations that qualify the students for a high school certificate. Some in the program, which began two year ago, have returned to school or even gone on to college.
"They've got much more self-respect now," volunteer Joan Easley said, "and, hopefully, they will pass that on to their kids, and the next generation will grow up with more attainment."
Strangely enough, for many in the class, getting pregnant and quitting school might be the best thing that ever happened to them.
"They weren't on a track to begin with," Easley said. "Now that they have a baby, they have more motivation than ever before. It has given them something to live for."
Aracely Mercado, 18, who has a 2-year-old son, fits that description.
"I need to get a good job and not be dependent on anyone else," said Aracely, who hopes to become a television newscaster. "I need to have a better future for my son."
The volunteers are concerned with more than the three Rs. Class members recently contributed to a cookbook that the staff printed, and they distributed a list of 101 ways to praise a child. (Meanwhile, in a room down the hallway, a day-care center has been set up to take care of the kids.)
"We talk to them, on an informal basis, on how to talk to their kids," said Fran Chalin, a project coordinator. "Remember, their own need for parenting is still unmet, and they can only parent the way they know."
One of the main priorities is emphasizing that the new mothers read often to their children, in the belief that it's never too early to begin educating the next generation.
"They read to their kids now instead of just putting them in front of the television," Chalin said.
For the older women, tutoring the teen-agers fits in perfectly with the long legacy of Jewish assistance to other cultures and gives them a chance to feel useful.
"I was a schoolteacher once," Fran Lieberman said, "and now that my children are grown, I felt the need to give something back. I felt there was a greater need here. They're old enough to understand the impact of the things that happen to them. They can open up and change the way they live."
The program uses space provided by El Nido Family Services.The teen-agers selected for the program are first interviewed by a social worker from El Nido, who determines whether they have sufficient interest in resuming their education.
"In the past, they haven't trusted social-service providers," Chalin said. "This gives them a chance to trust."
Where and When What: Teen Literacy Program. Location: El Nido Family Services, 12502 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima. Hours: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays. Call: (213) 651-2930.