NEWTON GROVE — Dawn Gillespie is on track to graduate from Midway High School in a few months. She’s attending Sampson Community College and plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, with aspirations to be a kindergarten teacher. Many high school students have goals for the future, but unlike a lot of her peers, Gillespie is 24 weeks pregnant.
“It’s hard for me right now even though I have not had mine yet,” Gillespie said.
At one point, Gillespie considered dropping out of school and getting her GED diploma later in life. But after having a run- in with the law she decided not to quit, so her child will not do the same.
“I think that opened that mind to keep on going back to school, because that’s not the place I want to be,” she said.
In addition to making personal decisions, Gillespie received a lot of encouraging from the local Table for Two program. Through Sampson County Cooperative Extension it helps teenage parents and teaches about proper nutrition for babies. Midway High School is one of the few schools in Sampson County benefiting from the program. Sessions were previously held at Lakewood High School and Union High School.
The curriculum is under the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which is federally funded through North Carolina Cooperative Extension. When students complete the program, a certificate from North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University is awarded. The document may help secure the students a job.
The program is led by Lethia Lee, EFNEP program assistant for Sampson County’s Cooperative Extension. She believes other schools in the county should took advantage of the program for support and nutritional education.
“They’re all striving to get to the same place with their baby,” Lee said. “Right now what we’re teaching them is that the baby is the most important thing. Even they’re not important anymore. It’s the baby that’s coming first.”
For the seven students a lot of things, such as going to the nail salon or parties will have to be put on the backburner.
“We have to learn how to adjust to different things,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy, but with the right mindset you can do it.”
Lee added there was once a time when such programs did not exist, leaving many students with low-self esteem. Now there’s more opportunities for the students to achieve despite the obstacle.
“They’re very blessed to have the acceptance of their teachers and guidance counselors because in the past, it didn’t work that way,” she said. “If you became pregnant, you got sent home.”
Sophomore Kasey Martinez, the parent of a 5-month-old, was able to connect to other students going through similar situations.
“We can always share our thoughts and no one in here will judge us,” Martinez said. “We can tell each other our feelings and we don’t have to tell anyone else.”
Jacqueline Luengas, sophomore, also enjoyed the bond formed with parents in the class. She is the parent of a 1-year-old boy.
“We’re all different people, but we’re all related in some type of way,” she said about being young parents.
When Luengas was pregnant, she had good grades and hardly missed school unless it was a doctor’s appointment.
“It was a lot easier and I had a lot of good friends who were there for me,” Luengas said about the pregnancy stage. “Now it’s a little bit harder. Not only do I have to come to school. I have to raise him and I have to work. I have to do a lot of things in so little time.”
Like her peers, Sophomore Lizett Vivar wishes it could last the whole year, instead of just six weeks. Her baby was born premature. Vivar said he’s considered a 10-month baby, but is actually 1. During the class, she learned valuable health techniques such as handling food properly and not using a lot of salt. It’s something Gillespie enjoys learning about too. She likes spreading the information with her family.
“I really don’t like a lot of salt,” Gillespie said.
The other participants who finished the program include Hanna Garcia, Garrett Fann and Delores Holmes.
Guidance Counselor Larinda Haight appreciates Table for Two and Lee’s involvement with the students.
“The program gives them an outlet of being around other people in the same boat or have the same situation,” Haight said. “What she’s teaching them is awesome because they’re learning how to cook healthy and cook on a budget. “There’s a lot of good life skills that would be beneficial to anybody, especially someone who’s responsible for another human being.”
Ashley Melendrez, family and consumer science teacher, said she could relate to their challenges.
“I was a teen mom myself and I know the struggles,” Melendrez said about becoming a parent at 19. “I’m very proud of these young women for what they’re doing and making a better life for them an their children.”
Melendrez believes it’s a great program for multiple reasons. One of the most important ones is support.
“Being a parent is difficult, being a teen parent is beyond difficult because of trying to keep up the expectations of school and home,” Melendrez said. “I think just the support itself is essential.”
She also appreciated the program’s nutrition side an lessons about buying food on a budget. Melendrez said it’s something that adults struggle with too.
“For them to get that advantage and implement it at home with themselves, families and children is very beneficial to them and the next generation,” she said.
Melendrez was recently recognized as the school’s Teacher of Year. Lee said her story can be inspiration for teenage mothers.
“That’s why we had her come in and tell her story,” Lee said. “They can succeed to and we let them know that.”