Center helps young mothers play catch-up Villa Louise fills educational void


When Lorena Hancock was 16, instead of getting ready for her junior prom, she was struggling for promotion to the eighth grade at West Baltimore Middle School. Frustrated with failing and being left so far behind, the pretty teen dropped out -- and got married.

"I was sick and had missed a lot of school, and it just got to be too hard," said Mrs. Hancock, now 21. "I want to do something with my life, and I know I need to do something about my education to get the kind of job I need."

Mrs. Hancock, who has a 5-month-old daughter, Amber, qualified for the General Educational Development (GED) program at Villa Louise Family Resource Center. Nestled within St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, the center offers classes for expectant mothers to help them keep up with their classes and to parents who wish to earn their high school equivalency diploma.

Run by Catholic Charities, the center receives referrals for young mothers and fathers from schools, hospitals and agencies. It has an on-site nursery to care for newborns to 3-year-olds while parents take classes.

For Mrs. Hancock, Villa Louiseopens the door for college and a career that will ease the financial load of her husband, who works two jobs to support the family. It also means participating in a program where the instructors understand her, she said.

"They really help you as much as they can here," she said. "They come down to my level to help me understand the work."

Lynn Johnson, the center's director, said the program takes 20 to 25 students who receive instruction in English, math, science, social studies and parent skills.

Classes are broken into morning sessions and afternoon classes for those working toward their GEDs, or all-day sessions for young women who are enrolled in a school and studying at Villa Louise to keep up with their work.

Shantel Leverett, a 15-year-old sophomore at Catonsville High School, is due to have her baby next month. Were it not for Villa Louise, she said, she would be stuck at home during the final weeks of her pregnancy.

"There are not a lot of people here, and you can work at your own pace," Miss Leverett, said.

Where once she struggled with courses, she is making A's and B's, her mother, Josephine Gross, said proudly.

Amy Ball is one of the center's success stories. The 18-year-old was a student at Western High School when she became pregnant with her son, Albert Barnes Jr., and came to Villa Louise.

Two years later, Ms. Ball now is a business administration major at Catonsville Community College while working part time at the center's nursery. She credits the program with helping her to fulfill her promise to her mother to get a high school diploma.

"If I hadn't come here, I wouldn't have gone to college," she said as she watched her son race around the nursery. "It's very difficult, but I know what I have to do if I want to get anywhere."

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