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Teen parents find inspiration, kinship in shared stories

Brigham hospital program bolsters teens’ prospects

Shaquanda Turner-Burris, 22, received some loving touches before a “Proud to Parent” conference that was held last month in Boston. Below,apamphlet from the conference.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Shaquanda Turner-Burris, 22, received some loving touches before a “Proud to Parent” conference that was held last month in Boston. Below,apamphlet from the conference.

When Jakira Gibbs became pregnant in high school, she had the support of family, friends, and her boyfriend in her decision to have the baby, a daughter. Now, at 21, Gibbs is reaching out to help other young parents who might not be so fortunate.

Gibbs, who is set to graduate from Bunker Hill Community College and continue her studies in human services, has been volunteering for Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s program for teen parents, where she has found solidarity. And she is expressing her gratitude — and her determination not to lose sight of her own ambitions — by contributing a moving essay to “Growing Together,” an annual anthology of young parents’ creativity, produced each year for a Boston summit that connects teen parents with the social services that will help them thrive.

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In a piece called “We Are Proud to Parent,” Gibbs addresses “our children:” “You are now our reason to make sure we achieve our wildest dreams so that we, in turn, can assist you on achieving yours.”

She also thanks those who doubt that young parents can have successful careers and happy, healthy children, “because we have a lot to prove, and proving you wrong is one of them.”

For the first time, this year’s anthology will include an appendix with contact information about the 45 agencies that participated in STEPS, the Summit for Teen Empowerment and Parenting Success, held recently, from planning to running workshops and resource booths.

“People throw away the program, but they’ll hold onto the anthology,” said Ariel Childs, senior coordinator for Family and Community Health Programs at the Brigham’s Center for Community Health and Health Equity. Young parents often tell her that long after the summit has ended, they will pull the anthology off the shelf when they need inspiration.

One contributor to this year’s anthology, a lab scientist named Jacqueline Raetz who delivered her son, now 7, when she was 16, challenges her readers: “What are YOU going to do to put the spotlight on teen pregnancy success rather than shaming and stating the negative stereotypes?”

‘We help them put their vision into voice, and we let it be told the way they want it to be told.’

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Other contributions are more personal. Laticia Goodman dedicated a poem, “My Air,” to her son, Jonah: “On the highest flying planes/ And the fastest swaying swings/ You, my air, are there.”

For the contributors, who also submit reminiscences, photo collages, and drawings, the aim is to provide a forum in which they can express themselves freely.

“My biggest thing is that, so often, young people’s stories are already being edited,” said Natasha Vianna, the program assistant who oversees the initiative’s active social media presence, with tweets and posts on Facebook and Instagram linked by the hashtag #ProudtoParent.

A former teen parent herself — her daughter is 8 — the 26-year-old Vianna edits the anthology with a very light hand, she said.

“We help them put their vision into voice, and we let it be told the way they want it to be told.”

Children’s Hospital founded the STEPS summit four years ago before handing over the project the following year to the Brigham.

“It aligned so well with the programs where we wanted to expand,” Childs said. “It made sense to assume leadership.”

The Brigham’s organizational allies in the event include service providers from Bridge Over Troubled Waters, the Crittenton Women’s Union, and Mass. General’s Fatherhood Project.

Gibbs, the volunteer, recently met another young mother, who was expecting her second baby, at the parenting program at Children’s.

“She said she was in a tough spot — ‘I don’t know how to focus, how to motivate myself,’ ‘’ Gibbs said.

“I said, ‘Come to this event. Half those things can be helped if you just look in the right places. The event has everything you need in one spot.’ I’m so excited she registered,” Gibbs said.

The initiative has brought together scores of young parents — the center estimates that more than 500 teens give birth each year in Boston — who often feel like they are the only ones going through the trials of being a young parent, said Vianna.

She joined the staff after enduring her own postpartum depression; her recovery, she said, was due in part to her blogging, which connected her to others struggling in similar ways.

Roughly 100 young parents — about 20 percent of them fathers — have attended the STEPS summit each year so far, according to Childs. There are hopes of growing in future years to accommodate young parents from other parts of the state.

Beyond Boston, the #ProudtoParent hashtag has attracted young parents from across the country who participate in the online conversation by blogging and sharing. Once they become involved, many young parents wear the wristbands that say “Proud to Parent” every day.

Goodman is one of 10 “Young Parent Ambassadors” working on a per diem for the program this year. She is especially committed to the anthology, to which she submitted a poem. A dancer from a young age at Roxbury’s Uptown Dance Center, she feels strongly that young parents need creative outlets, to remind themselves that they have not given up their own lives for the sake of their babies.

“That’s always been a passion for me,” she said. “When I step onstage, that’s when I get to let everything go.

“If you’re an artist, give your child a paintbrush,” she said. “My son, he loves to dance. He’ll dance all day.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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