Rooms are painted in cheerful bright blues, pinks or greens.
Near the single beds, empty cribs with a few toys wait for babies to arrive.
As Caroline Looney walks through North Carolina’s first transitional living facility for homeless and at-risk teenage mothers, she looks inside a large, bare storage closet.
“I hope to see it packed with Pampers,” said Looney, executive director of With Friends Inc., Gastonia’s nonprofit shelter for homeless and runaway young people. “Everything you’d need for growing toddlers and babies.”
Teen pregnancy rates in North Carolina hit a record low in 2009, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. New data show that 56 of every 1,000 teen girls ages 15 to 19 become pregnant, a decrease from the 2008 rate of 58.6 per 1,000.
The new 4,665-square-foot maternity home that opens this month is a first in the state – and it follows the announcement in Gaston of the start one of the nation’s first communitywide efforts to reduce teen pregnancy.
The six-bed maternity home differs from temporary emergency shelters in that mothers can stay up to two years and get counseling and support. Also, teen moms who don’t live in the shelter will get some of the same services.
The shelter, which can house nine children 2 and younger, will require moms to learn parenting skills, family planning and other lessons focused on self-sufficiency.
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park,” Looney said. “There will be rules, a curfew and a structured environment.”
Girls without GEDs or high school degrees will be expected to work on getting diplomas. They’ll receive help in finding jobs and learning about child care, food preparation, budgeting and personal hygiene. Looney said there will be an educational focus on preventing second pregnancies.
“The program is about giving hope,” she said. “Some of these young women had goals and aspirations they feel are over because they had a baby. We want to educate them that it’s not over. They can still succeed.”
Turning the tide
The maternity home is the latest resource in an intensified battle against an old problem in Gaston, where the teen pregnancy rate is higher than the state average .
According to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, more than 400 girls ages 15-19 become pregnant in Gaston County each year. Often the young mothers are abused or neglected; sometimes their parents use drugs or are involved in crime.
In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a five-year, $5.8 million project to lower the teen pregnancy rate in Gaston County. The Durham-based Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina (APPCNC) applied for funding in June with the help of a coalition of Gaston health professionals, youth-serving agencies, pregnancy prevention programs and faith leaders.
The Gaston proposal was one of eight projects funded across the country.
Called Gaston Youth Connected, the project’s goal is to cut the county’s teen pregnancy and birth rates by 10 percent over the five years. Gaston’s teen pregnancy rate was 62.2 pregnancies for every 1,000 15 to 19-year-old girls in 2009. Down 3.7 percent from the previous year, Gaston’s is the 36th-highest rate among North Carolina’s 100 counties.
By comparison, Mecklenburg County’s rate was 56.4 per 1,000 girls, a 6.2 percent decrease from the previous year.
The Centers for Disease Control will pump more than $12.61 million each year into Gaston Youth Connected. About $525,000 will go directly to organizations serving young people, and much of the remaining amount will be used to organize the community around prevention efforts.
Kay Phillips, executive director of APPNC, said the project will “saturate the community and bring everybody to the table.”
Established in 1995, With Friends Inc. is a private community-based shelter that provides residential care, counseling, education, skill building and other programs to help young people succeed.
The organization serves teens in Gaston, Lincoln, Cleveland, Mecklenburg, Stanley, Iredell and Union counties.
The new maternity home is a separate building from the youth shelter.
Gastonia Mayor Jennie Stultz, who chaired the maternity home fundraising campaign, doesn’t have an explanation for Gaston’s elevated teen pregnancy rate.
But she remembers a young mother’s reply when asked why she got pregnant: “Because I want somebody who needs and loves me.”
For Stultz, the maternity home can help young women “to be good parents and get back on their feet.”
“I’m extremely proud our community saw the need and met the need for this critical issue,” she said. “This can have a tremendous impact.”