Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesWhen Jasmine Stewart was 16, she had a wonderful life with two parents in a Christian home. She was a Sunday school and Bible school teacher when she became pregnant — a choice she attributes to high school peer pressure, but nevertheless a conscious choice.
“It was definitely a choice I made but it was just a trend for everybody to be walking down the high school halls with big bellies and for everybody to be doing drugs, which I have never done, drugs.”
Jasmine said she never thought about the potential difficulties of raising a child. “I was more excited that there was going to be a new baby. But you can’t feed a baby with love. I have matured now that I have realized things I did not know about when I got pregnant. I set family values for me and my son, I am not going to settle for anybody else’s scraps.”
Jasmine remained in her parents’ home and was able to receive her high school diploma, despite being out of school on bed rest after she delivered her baby in her junior year. During that time she missed the Constitution test, some history tests and assignments, all of which could have derailed her participation in her graduation ceremony. But her high school principal gave her two weeks to make up the work and Jasmine was able to walk across the stage.
Jasmine is now 22 and her son is 5. She has never been on-the-street homeless but in a sense she fits the definition of “doubled up homeless.” She says that as a new mom, she began to feel like the head of her own household, like she should be taking charge.
“I was an unemployed parent. I did not want to rely on government assistance, I wanted to go out and make a living.”
She tried a variety of programs, such as Put Illinois to Work, which was funded by economic stimulus dollars. But after that job near her West Side home ended after 11 months, she was unemployed for two years. A sideline doing hair didn’t bring in much money, she said. She also received a certificate for medical assisting, as well as home health aide training.
A year ago, Jasmine came to New Moms, Inc. on the West Side at the suggestion of a high school friend who had also completed its program. She attended its Academy of Professional Development (APD) for five weeks, learned resume building and also the “circle of control:” that she is at the center of things she can manage, such as attitudes going into a job interview, but that there are other things she cannot control, such as natural disasters.Jasmine went on to an eight-week paid practicum at Bright Endeavors, New Moms’ social enterprise that produces Dreambean eco-friendly candle and spa products and Good Glass Chicago, a sustainable candle refill product line for restaurants, events and special venues. Young women in the eight-week program rotate through several positions and gain experience in manufacturing, inventory, packing and shipping, bookkeeping, marketing, customer service and product development. One recent product collaboration for SERRV International, the fair trade nonprofit, brought votive containers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam to Bright Endeavors to be filled and returned to SERRV for sale through its catalog.
New Moms has provided the structure that has brought all of Jasmine’s earlier efforts together.
“When I was just at home feeling discouraged about finding a job, ‘I would rather have my own money, my own house, my own everything,’ New Moms was like, ‘I don’t see why you can’t have it. We will work with you. We will help you get a job, help you work to get those things you need.’ I had great parents who encouraged me financially. But New Moms taught me to go out and be an adult, even though I was 18.”
Jasmine’s little boy, meanwhile, received free daycare and the chance to experience other kids through New Moms’ New Kids program while she was at the APD.
“And he got to see his mother in a different light going from our situation before. The way the program changed me, changed him. Everything turned around. I started attending job fairs and my seventh week I ended up getting hired.”
She worked for a staffing firm and was promoted to processing manager. New Moms gave her that extra push, she said. “They encouraged me, ‘get your resume, put a smile on your face.’ They changed me. I am definitely more mature. I can divide the professional from the personal. I can be proud of myself and my accomplishment, move up from there. I could be upset or cranky, but when I come here it all changes.”
The reason, she says, is that New Moms is a positive community environment with no drama. Besides the Academy of Professional Development, it offers Community Outreach to moms age 13 to 21 who are at risk of homelessness by connecting them to services; its Parents As Teachers (PAT) program provides home-based education and mentoring and the offer of monitoring perinatal and child medical appointments as well as annual vision and hearing testing; weekly parents’ support groups and housing for 40 families along with case management skills.
Last year New Moms Inc. completed a $12.5 million building at 5327 W. Chicago Ave. that includes 30 studios for moms with one child and 10 more one-bedroom apartments for pregnant women who entered its program with one child, all built around a courtyard where children can play safely. The 40 units of new supportive housing doubled New Moms’ capacity and Chicago’s resources for this population by one third. In 2009, however, New Moms turned away 891 homeless, teen-led families due to lack of bed space.Jasmine says moral support and structure is what she received from New Moms, but she feels that shelter and meals is what many of her peers there value most, “so they don’t have to sleep on park benches, so they don’t have to be out in the cold with their children.”
“I have heard most of their stories…It just sounds so harsh and hard growing up, like you can’t go anywhere and do anything because you are limited. If you are homeless and have no place to go, then you really feel, ‘what is the point of going to school’?”
Besides shelter and meals, Jasmine says that “a good spiritual home and a good mental home” are what adolescent moms need most. And so just as New Moms has reached out to her, she does the same for her friends. She helped one of them collect scrap metal and pop cans for money and even took her baby in overnight when he needed a bath.
“I saw the heartbreak, the look on a parent’s face when they say, ‘we can’t go home, we don’t have a home to go to. I’m grateful I never had to break that news to my son. Hopefully I never will.”
Last year Jasmine began a Certified Nursing Assistant program that she will finish in July.
“I would love to work in a hospital, a nursing home, a doctor’s office. I want to be a nurse. I want to go further in my education and get a degree.” But she said she also feels the pressure to keep working.
In the meantime she moved to an apartment of her own and three months ago came back to a six-month job at Bright Endeavors as a production team leader. She just got her license and a car. Her little boy will start kindergarten next September and she is getting married to his father – who has received his associate’s degree — in October.
She is on track to attaining the goals she had before becoming pregnant.
“I wanted to maintain that good-girl image, a lot of the expectations my parents had for me: to go to college, then get married, then have children. To work, live a happy kind of life. Things kind of took a turn. I am still pushing toward that but instead of me living the expectations of someone else, I am doing it because I want to do it and because I feel it is for me and the best thing for me and my family.”