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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Making a Difference, One Young Woman at a Time

March 06, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN | Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

Just before noon, the mothers arrive at the day-care center. They join their children for lunch at small picnic tables on the enclosed blacktopped yard. To an outsider, it looks as though the children are eating with their much older siblings--that's because the mothers are still in their teens. They are students at Business Industry School, an L.A. Unified adult vocational facility that offers day care to its teen-age mothers for $5 a week.

It is a hard life for these young women. Most are single, many are in abusive relationships with their boyfriends, many live with other family members in crowded apartments. They are striving for high-school diplomas and better lives.

I sat on a bench with 19-year-old Claudia as her 3-year-old, Jerry, played nearby. Claudia and Jerry live four blocks from the school in a two-bedroom apartment with Claudia's parents, her four brothers and her grandmother. Claudia and Jerry sleep together on the bottom of a bunk bed. Jerry, she says, irritates her brothers, and the tension is constant. Two weeks ago, Jerry's 20-year-old father broke up with Claudia. As she told me this, her eyes reddened.

"We were planning so much stuff," she said. She picked at her acrylic nails. A tear rolled down her check. "We were talking about getting married."

To say that these young mothers and their children are vulnerable to the plagues we often blame for the disintegration of this city--crime, unemployment, poverty, drugs--is to state the obvious.

The question is: Can the course be altered, the cycle broken?

*

One evening last week, I sat in a small, comfortable office at a local hospital with 10 women and began to feel a glimmer of hope.

It was a support group--meeting for the first time since six of the women had become mentors to six teen-age mothers of the Business Industry School. The Teen Parent Mentor Project, which began in January, is administered by the Early Childhood Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to the healthy development of children. It is run out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center by Karen Pomer and Janis Minton, in coordination with Ruth Beaglehole, the indefatigable director of Business Industry's teen-parenting and day-care program.

Mentors and mothers were matched after a series of interviews and meetings. The mentors come from all walks of life: a union organizer, a police officer, a radio executive, an office manager.

"You want to make a difference in someone's life," said Bonita Dent, 41, chief financial officer for FM radio station V103.9. "I want to work with someone who wants to improve her life. . . . You start with one person and then maybe they will be able to reach out and help someone one day."

Mona Lisa Fortenberry, a 38-year-old mother of four sons, runs a day-care center for infants. She felt drawn to Jessica, 18, the mother of a toddler.

"There was just something about Jessica. I wanted her. I felt she had something to offer me," said Fortenberry. "She has qualities that need to be watered. She is like dry land that is cracked."

Pomer smiled: "Jessica was telling her friends at school, 'My mentor picked me !' "

"Like a wanted baby," Beaglehole said.

*

When Claudia first heard about the program, she didn't think she would participate.

"I thought the mentor wouldn't like me," she said. "I thought I would bore them."

Claudia ended up with Linda Garcia, a high school career counselor who helped with a resume that landed Claudia a job in an insurance office.

"Linda has helped me in every way," Claudia said. "I call her when I need to talk. We have everything in common."

At the support meeting, Garcia was concerned about the number of hours Claudia has been working.

"This is a problem with a lot of them," Beaglehole said. Too much work equals not enough time in school.

"Yeah, we talked about whether the job was worth it," Garcia said. "And Claudia said, 'But Linda, I need the experience!' Well, she got me there. I am a career counselor."

Mentoring can be tricky. The mentors seem to have so much, the mothers so little. Mentors are encouraged, for example, to buy lunch, but to draw the line at other purchases--to trade in a currency of emotional support, not cash. And they must constantly fight the urge to judge. As one mentor said, "That's our oath: 'We will not be judgmental.' "

It's too soon to know what difference these relationships will make in the lives of the teen mothers, in the lives of their children, in the life of this city. But, to borrow the mentor's metaphor, this program seems as full as promise as fresh rain on dry soil.

Without water, what flower can bloom?

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