Kayci is 16 weeks old and her mother Shakayla Bowe is 16 years old — a symmetry of weeks and years that will never come again.
And if those numbers suggest this is a child looking after a baby, the ready smile on the baby’s face shows that this is a child as tender in affection as she is in years.
“She’s a good mom. Kayci is always clean and well fed, and she never stops smiling. Do you?” says Carley Romas, a youth worker with Sir Charles Tupper Secondary’s young parents program, as she tickles the baby’s feet.
It is here in this double-wide portable classroom at the edge of the school’s sports field on Carolina Street that Bowe is trying to get her life on track.
How far she wandered off can be judged by the fact she has had no proper schooling for the past three years.
From the age of 13, her attendance record would show what?
“Hmmm, two days at Eagle High one year,” Bowe says, “and two or three hours at Skyline (alternative school), although at Eagle High, I didn’t really stay, I just went in and left.”
Three hours in three years — what was she doing from September 2010 to September 2013?
“Just meeting friends. Going out. I wasn’t really up for school. It was hard for me to focus. I was more interested in being young than going to school,” she says.
But here she is, baby in her arms, wanting to make up for lost time.
Sometimes, she has trouble getting in in the morning, and sometimes, when Kayci is sick, she can’t come at all. But she’s making an effort and Romas and the program’s two other staff, Colin McLean and Leah Turner, do all they can to encourage her.
“Shakayla’s doing really well. On her first report card she got two Bs and an A,” says Romas.
There are 11 other young mothers (and pregnant girls) ranging in age from 15 to 19 in the school’s program.
Moral encouragement is one thing, providing diapers and baby wipes, formula, or modest gift cards so these girls can get something for themselves as their slender resources — mostly federal child allowance benefits — quickly vanish on baby necessities, is another.
And it’s the need for this encouragement that is behind Romas’s request to The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $10,000.
“It’s important for us to be able to help them with the necessities, and it does have an effect on them coming here. We know that,” said Romas.
“These students are under a great deal of stress. We want these girls and their babies to be successful in life.”
Some of the students live in foster homes or, like Bowe, with a parent. Some are on their own, using supportive living benefits from social services to pay the rent and buy food and clothing, and they often need help from the food bank and what’s available at school to get by.
In September, staff were confronted by a 16-year-old who was homeless and six months pregnant.
“She’d come to Vancouver from Saskatchewan, and she came in here to get food, just after Labour Day,” says McLean. “I asked her where she was staying, and she’d spent the weekend sleeping rough. Sixteen, and six months pregnant — it was very disturbing.”
(That young woman has since returned to Saskatchewan.)
While they attend the school, which is a few blocks east of Main on 24th Avenue, the students’ babies stay at Emma’s Child Care, a YWCA daycare next door to the portables.
The idea is to get these young mothers to complete Grade 12 before they turn 19, because that’s their Cinderella Hour.
Once 19, they lose free daycare for their children, foster care vanishes, access to Tupper stops, and the world becomes a less-helpful place.
“When they age-out at 19, a lot of services dry up. All the care they’ve been relying on is gone. It’s a shock, and it’s very difficult for them,” says Romas.
So an incentive program to keep them coming to school is important, she said.
“It’s huge for them. If we couldn’t give them diapers and wipes and formula, maybe they wouldn’t be in school,” she says.
Turner, who has worked in the program the longest, said it doesn’t take much imagination to see how difficult life is for young mothers trying to balance the needs of being a parent with the pressures of attending school.
“These young women are going through all the same things other teenagers experience, but often without the structure and support other kids have,” said Turner.
“Most people can’t imagine how taxing it is for them. They’ll tell you that buses won’t stop for them because they’ve got a stroller, and when they do get on a bus passengers will tell them they are too young to have a child. They feel constantly judged,” she says.
“And yet they love their children and are doing their best for them.”
Students who want to pursue post-secondary education find it difficult as scholarships are few and far between, said McLean.
“If we could get some kind of scholarship support for them it would be a great help to get them to college or trades training,” he says.
It’s not hard to picture the future of a young mother leaving school at 19 with all the supports removed, having to fend for herself. The prospect of an existence on social security seems very real.
That is not a future Bowe contemplates. She wants to become a veterinarian.
“People tried to get me to go to school,” she says of her vanishing act. “It was my choice to come here, and I made the choice for my daughter.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)