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Howard woman offers 'hope' of college education to teen parents

Less than 2 percent of teen mothers who have a child before the age of 18 complete college before they turn 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

One Howard County woman is trying to change that.

"When you look at what services are available to teen parents, the services tend to focus on prevention, emergency services or finishing high school, which is obviously important, but support takes a nosedive when it comes to higher education," said Nicole Lynn Lewis, 33, of Columbia. "Less than half of teen parents are getting high school diplomas and getting to college. It's dismal, and those men and women are suffering and their children are suffering."

Lewis is the CEO and founder of Generation Hope, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit now in its third year. Generation Hope pairs teen parents with mentors to help them face the struggles of college and provides the students with up to $2,400 a year in scholarship money, or $1,200 if they attend a community college. Several of those students and mentors are Howard County residents, and Howard Community College is also a supporter of the nonprofit; the college purchased a table in support of Generation Hope's Gala this past summer and a Generation Hope student is currently studying there.

"These young people are wonderful, ambitious and committed," Lewis said. "But they're struggling with life balance, with time management, with finances."

That's where the mentor program comes in. Unlike traditional mentor or scholarship programs, the mentors for Generation Hope are the ones who provide the scholarship money for the students. It's a more hands-on approach, Lewis said.

The mentors and scholars — what student are called within Generation Hope — meet at least once a month to touch base and talk, but many pairs do much more than the monthly meeting, Lewis said. Between calling, texting and emailing, many keep in frequent touch. That provides the students with the emotional support they may need, and Lewis said that emotional support can make all the difference.

"It definitely would have helped me," Lewis said. "Knowing that I could have had someone to call or text, being able to have reached out to someone would have meant a lot to my sanity and emotional state."

Lewis knows the importance of a support system for teen parents firsthand: she was one. As a high school senior in Virginia, Lewis became pregnant with her daughter. She was already college-bound, and in her middle-class, education-focused family, a teen pregnancy "did not fit.

"It was devastating because even though I was an honor student, the message was: Your life is over," she said. "I didn't want that for me or for my child. It became so important to get a college degree."

Lewis became a full-time freshman at the College of William and Mary when her daughter was three months old, and was living mostly on "faith and hope, taking one step after another hoping I would make it to graduation."

Lewis graduated with a degree in English, then went to George Mason University where she got her master's in social policy and communication. Her daughter is now a student at Atholton High School. But it was difficult, Lewis said.

"I saw my life transform with a college degree, but it was a scary time," Lewis said. "As I went into the working world, I was involved in youth-focused nonprofits and I wanted to give back and start my own organization that filled this critical void in terms of teen parent support. This jumped out at me as a major need."

So far, Generation Hope has given out about $40,000 in scholarships to teen parents in the D.C. region. There are 22 scholars currently in the program, including Sandra Gomez, 19, who lives in Columbia with her family. Gomez, who just started her second year at HCC, had her son, Christian, when she was 17 and a senior in high school. She's studying nursing and hopes to work with infants and children.

"I wanted to be a pediatrician, and I love working with kids. But I thought with nursing I would get a look at everything," said Gomez, who graduated from Howard High School in 2012.

While she was in high school, Gomez participated in the Options Program, a partnership between the county's Department of Social Services, the Howard County Public School System and the county's Department of Health. Teen parents are offered counseling services across the county, and can transfer to Wilde Lake High School in order to use the school's day care center. Patricia Daley, the school system's director of student services, said about 55 parents currently use the program, and 15 babies are in day care. That number's been holding steady for a few years, she said.

Had it not been for the support of Generation Hope and her mentor's moral support, Gomez said she probably wouldn't be going to college. She works two jobs and said it's hard to balance life, work, school and her son, who is now nearly two years old, but she wants to provide the best possible life for him.

"No one in my family has been able to go to college, and especially with the baby, it's so important to have an education to give him a good life," she said. "With the scholarship and the support, it pushes me. Even now, it can get hard. There are some nights I only get a few hours of sleep. But I have the support so I want to take advantage of it."

Gomez's mentor, Jeananne Sciabarra, of Ellicott City said that when it comes to teen parents, Gomez has a good support system in her family. Gomez and her family are focused on her receiving a college education, and having that support "is huge," Sciabarra said.

"The time constraints to take care of child, work and do your homework — it's a different life that someone who is just going to college," Sciabarra said. "Sandra is the sweetest person and she has so much support around her. It's not an easy life, and having that support is not always the case."

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