A couple of years ago, Maria Reyes-Sanchez was uncomfortable sitting in desks at Union High School, with a swollen belly.
“With people staring at you all the time … it was hard,” Reyes-Sanchez said about carrying her baby.
Her child, Aileen, just celebrated her second birthday. And being a teenage mother did not stop Reyes-Sanchez from getting good grades at Union.
“Once you achieve, it feels good, knowing that you earned it,” she said. “I wanted to get something out of my education or all of these years would have been a waste.”
The 18-year-old senior was one of several teenage mothers who received lessons through Table for Two, a program operated locally through Sampson County Cooperative Extension.
Lethia Lee, an extension agent for Family and Consumer Sciences, presented the class which teaches young ladies how to deal with pregnancy and having babies. The program helps through locating resources and by teaching proper nutrition during pregnancy and after birth. But Lee noted self-esteem was an essential aspect of the learning process.
“Their babies should be the most important things in their lives right now. Not how someone feels about them,” Lee said. “The baby comes first and the baby is precious.”
Although Lee offered her guidance, she stressed and noted that is was up to the girls to boost their own self-esteem under the stress of being a teenage mother.
“Before this class, I was always thinking about what everyone thought of me,” Reyes-Sanchez said about times when she questioned her future.
While instructing the students, Lee learned that a lot of them became more motivated to become more successful in life.
“It makes them want more for the baby,” Lee said about the students pushing themselves.
Table for Two is a part of the curriculum under the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, which is a federally funded educational program through Cooperative Extension.
Lee noted that such programs were not available many years ago for teenagers who did not plan to become pregnant or ignored birth control methods. In many cases they became outcast.
“That’s sad to say something like that to someone,” Lee said. “But that’s all teachers and counselors knew back then and that’s just the way to do it. But now there’s plenty of opportunities.”
Reyes-Sanchez is determined not to be another statistic with an unpleasant future.
“They drop out and keep working with nothing motivating them,” Reyes-Sanchez said.
After high school, Reyes-Sanchez plans to attend a community college and transfer to a four-year university to study physical therapy.
“It motivated me also to keep going and keep studying,” Reyes-Sanchez said about receiving more support through the program. “It’s not just for me. It’s for my baby too.”
At Union High School, four mothers were involved in Table for Two. Octavia Ashley is the only pregnant participant and is expecting her baby to arrive Feb. 23, 2016. In the future, she would like to become a pediatric nurse or something related to children. The 17-year-old recently showed sonogram pictures of her child to Lee and other participants. During the program, Ashley received information about healthy eating and the negative effects a poor diet can have on a baby.
“I realized, it’s not just me,” Ashley said. “It’s the baby too.”
She also received support from her peers in the group.
“Being with the girls also boosted my support,” Ashley said.
It’s something Taylor DeLeone, school counselor noticed as well.
“Several of them have lunch together,” DeLeone said. “Normally, they would be spread out across the cafeteria. After the first two classes, I think the support they got from each other is huge.”
The class began in early September at Union High School and continued through late October. Awards and certificates were awarded to the student for participating. Union High School is the first in Sampson County to accept the program. In the future, Lee hopes more area high schools would be willing to accept Table for Two.
DeLeone said Lee is the first person to reach out to offer assistance to pregnant students. Currently, there’s about eight pregnant students enrolled at the school. Two gave birth in October.
“It’s a topic a lot of people don’t want to touch,” DeLeone said about teenage pregnancy. “For someone to come in and work with that population of kids is really important. They learned nutritional education, but I think the emotional support has been a huge part of this program.”
Almost all of the students are enrolled in honor classes or making As.
“They are busting it out in the classroom,” DeLeone said. “For them to have such a different life than their counterparts have … I’m just proud of all of them. They have been preparing for their future and their grades are showing it.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.