Thursday, July 3, 2014 || By Michael Romain
You’re raised in a home with two strong, loving parents. You live in a comfortably middle-class suburb. You attend a church where your father is pastor and your mother is first lady. You’re a preacher’s kid. There are expectations. You’re a model child who other parents want their children to emulate. And then, at 16, you’re pregnant. What do you do?
That’s the scenario in which Jasmine Jenkins, 29, found herself some twelve years ago when she became pregnant with her daughter Ayana. The experience was initially traumatic for the Proviso West alumnus, but she believes it drove her to her purpose. By day, she’s a Contact Representative at the Social Security Administration. In her off hours, however, she’s the founder, president and CEO of Generation Moms, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing poverty in disadvantaged families by deeply investing in the post-secondary education of teen parents,” according to its website.
Last month, I spoke with Jasmine about her journey from fear to empowerment; her vision for Generation Moms; and her thoughts on the roots of teenage pregnancy, among other matters:
Tell me about your experience as a teenage mother and how you came to the idea for starting this organization.
I became pregnant at 16. I was absolutely devastated. My dad is a pastor at Mt. Moriah in Forest Park and my mom is first lady. I grew up in this really Christian, structured environment. I’m really spiritual, so when I got pregnant, I asked God why he allowed this to happen to me. I would pray and pray to ask God to conceal his purpose, but I felt as if my prayers fell on deaf ears. I was afraid. I had no clue what this meant for my future. I thought I would have to drop out of high school and work.
But I was fortunate, because my parents were completely supportive of me in continuing my goals and education. My mom told me that even though I had this setback, I could still be whatever I wanted to be. With the emotional and financial support of my parents, I was able to go to college–first to Dillard in New Orleans and then to Howard, where I transferred after Hurricane Katrina struck and from where I eventually graduated. I went on to DePaul to get my master’s in Public Policy.
I got to travel abroad a lot and meet so many fascinating, driven people; but I didn’t meet many teenage moms like myself. I know there are lots of us out here who have defied the odds, but are just not sharing our stories. That’s when the bells went off. God told me what I needed to do. So I started researching teen programs locally and internationally for about 13 months. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, because at the time I wasn’t yet sure whether this was how I wanted to spend my life.
I discovered that there are a lot of programs that focus on the immediate, material needs of teenage parents–they need diapers, formula, etc.–but there were very few programs that focused on the long-term, non-material needs. I wanted to build a program that focused on those kinds of issues, such as the academic achievement gap between teenage parents and other kids.
Less than 2 percent of teen moms complete college by 30. I defied the odds, because of my emotional and financial support. So our program is really built around providing that emotional and financial support for other young moms and dads who may not have that support in their homes, churches and schools. I experience a sense of gratification that I can’t explain when a teen parent realizes that their lives aren’t over.
So what services do your program provide to teenage parents?
Our work is concentrated in two key areas at this time. Our College and Career Readiness program and our College Mentoring program. The College and Career readiness program serves teen parents currently enrolled in their junior and senior years of high school. We partner with high schools, community organizations, and social/religious institutions to equip students with the necessary tools to succeed beyond high school.
To achieve this goal, Generation Moms utilizes a nationally recognized, research proven curriculum. We begin by exploring students interests and finding careers that match their interests. We then research the types of education that’s needed to have that specific career.
Next, we help teen parents apply and enroll in colleges based on their career interests, the college’s degree programs offerings, and the kind and amount of financial aid assistance our parents desire. Our facilitators work with teen parents twice a month, after school to help them create a personalized success plan for their lives beyond high school.
We cover ACT preparation in the summer before senior year to make sure all of our teen parents are admitted into top colleges and universities. We even bring in guests speakers from various respective career fields to give our Gen parents a deeper look into the daily lives and responsibilities of professional men and women here in Chicago.
Our next program is our College Mentoring program. In this program, teen parents enrolled in colleges are matched with a Generation Mentor who works with them on-one-one to provide emotional and financial support needed for them to complete their educational and career goals. Our mentors really serve as extended family, and for some, the only family our teen parents have.
Right now, we have three moms that we mentor. The girls are paired with facilitators, who also happen to be good friends of mine. These facilitators are teen moms themselves, some of whom didn’t have any support. We come from various backgrounds, but we all have one common thread and that’s overcoming the obstacles that a young mom or dad will face in his or her life. The program is really intensive. We don’t just help you your freshman year and say good luck for the remainder of your college career.
We help our parents enroll. We tap into interviewing skills. We show them how to make themselves more marketable to employers. We help them with their day-to-day needs. We show them how to apply for family housing on campus and how to apply for campus daycare. We expect them to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and we’re always ensuring that they’re involved with extracurricular activities, since one of our program goals is social success. We also want to help them secure two internships while they’re in college, that’s the second greatest goal we have for them after college completion.
We’re in their lives for four years. And all of our services are 100 percent free. We only ask that once mentees complete their post-secondary education, they then become mentors themselves. One of my goals is to have a continuous pool of successful mentors.
We also started doing workshops with high school teen parents this year. This past fall, we conducted three workshops at Proviso East–in March, April and May–and beginning this upcoming fall 2014, we’ll be there full-time, every Tuesday. These workshops are a forum for teen parents to build moral and character development. In these character enrichment workshops, we address a range of topics.
We ask our participants to identify who they are and ask themselves a series of questions: ‘Where I am I going?’ ‘Do I matter?’ And the teens love it. They’re almost late for class, becuase the discussion is so rich. They’ve never had anyone ask them what do they want to do now that they’re parents or had someone to help them deal with peer pressure or how to adjust to life now that they’re responsible for another life. You know, when your friends want to party after school and you have to go pick the baby up.
We’ve also partnered with the Illinois Delayed Subsequent Teen Pregnancy Program (IDSTPP). The mission of their program is to basically work with teen moms to delay a subsequent teen pregnancy. We think that’s extremely important. We’re really an add-in organization. We’re specifically targeting these large organizations that currently serve our demographic and saying to them, ‘By partnering with us, we’ll come in and prepare your girls to succeed in some form of post-secondary education. We’ll help them catapult their careers.’ So we’ll be at [IDSTPP’s] Madison location onsite as an after school program twice a month, from 5:30 PM until 8 PM.
Does your organization teach abstinence?
We discuss various methods of contraceptives, but we don’t teach abstinence exclusively. We try to meet our young moms and dads where they are and try talking to them in a language in which they can relate. We do explain all the benefits of waiting until you get married to start a family. Even though they’ve started their family prematurely doesn’t mean they have to keep on having children prematurely, because the likelihood of you succeeding economically and socially decreases dramatically when you’re a single parent with multiple children. But nothing is off limits.
Explain your idea of generational continuity, because I think its extremely unique.
The 13 months were really critical in our infancy stage, because I’d come home every day and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning doing research. I didn’t want to duplicate services. I wanted something that could really have an impact on not just their lives, but generations to come; hence the name Generation Moms. We want to foster this new generation of moms who break barriers and contribute richly to the community we live in and defy the odds.
I’ve joined forces with my generation of successful teen parents in hopes of fostering the next generation of successful teen parents. Our efforts have the ability to make a large impact on the lives of teen parent families, and their future generations to come. I am looking to increase the number of successful teen parents and improve the odds for their children and grandchildren. By developing a really strong alumni network of Generation Mentors, Generation Moms will be in the community for decades to come.
What would you consider one of your organization’s greatest strengths? What are some organizational goals that you have for Generation Moms? And do you plan on expanding your programming in the near-term?
Right now, we don’t really have the capacity at this time to serve more organizations, but we do have a lot of interest from alternative schools on the West Side. I just don’t have the staff to send our facilitators out. We currently have four generation mentors and are accepting applications on a rolling basis.
Our program is really unique. We’re doing one thing and we’re doing it well. We’ve developed a really strong college readiness curriculum. That’s what I’m most proud about. We’re not offering a million different things. We found our niche and we’re going to continue to improve on the college readiness.
One of our goals is to build partnerships with corporations, so that our participants can secure preferably paid internships while they’re in college. We plan on partnering with colleges and other institutions to make this happen. We also want to secure scholarships for our parents, so they’re more financially secure. Those are two of our main goals.
Where does the funding currently come from to support what you do?
We are in the process of applying for several grants to help us strengthen and expand our services in the community. We believe that our work has never been more important that it is today. Individual, Foundation, and Corporate dollars all benefit our college scholarship fund. One of our goals is to send each Generation teen parent off to college with at least a $500 scholarship to help pay for college related expenses. We recognize that our students wear three very important hats, that of: A parent. A student. And a teen.
One of the things that impressed me most about your organization as I was researching Generation Moms is the general impression I got. Your website is streamlined, incredibly neat and professional. Your message and branding is really tight and concise. You have some really credible people on your board. You seem to have mastered the administrative side of things.
I was the executive coordinator for David Munar, the former CEO at the AIDS foundation, for a year. He has over 23 years of nonprofit management. For the three years I was at the Foundation, I had a front row seat to how a successful nonprofit organization should be run. The AIDS foundation has been been around for 30 years. It had a $25 million budget when I was there. They have the numbers to back up why they’ve been around so long. I think that’s what you’re picking up on.
I took such a long time to research, because I wanted my board of directors to be structured. We’ve already developed a budget. We have a business plan. We’ve drawn up our RFPs (Requests for Proposal). Sitting under a seasoned leader taught me a lot. When I worked for him, David was the king of delegating. He taught me that your main priorities as CEO is strategy, vision and relationship-building. I learned that he literally does one thing and he does it well. He’s not trying to wear different hats. He’s not even in our development department. He’s solely in that governance role.
My very first day there, he walks up to me and he goes, ‘Weren’t you a policy intern?’ I say yes. He says, ‘Good. I have to speak tonight at the Chicago Stories dinner and I need a speech.’ He gives me a list of [random topics] and says,’I need some bullet points on those topics and I need them in two hours. I wanted to cry, but i did it and did a phenomenal job. He asked whether I wrote the speech and I said yes, very timidly. He said, ‘This is incredible,’ and asked if I majored in journalism. I said no, political science. He said, ‘That’s a shock, most public policy people aren’t good writers.’
I share that, because that single opportunity changed my life and taught me leadership. As a leader, people look to you to develop the strategic plan. When you develop that strategic plan, your job is done. The rest is up to the others, in terms of executing the details of that plan. One of our challenges is finding people who are qualified to help us in our infancy stages–accountants, lawyers, etc.
How long have you guys been up and running, because you sound incredibly seasoned! How much time do you commit to this?
We had our official launch event on May 16, 2014. I took the job that I have now, because the government has something called flex hours, which allows me to work from 7:15 AM to 3:45 PM and run my program for the rest of the day.
What are some factors that are responsible for the prevalence of teenage pregnancy, particularly among minorities?
We live in a day and age where sex is glorified. When our parents were growing up, if you were having sex before marriage you definitely weren’t talking about it. Abstinence was higher then. With the social media generation, sex is as accessible to my 11 year old as it is to my 90 year old grandmother.
Hispanics and blacks are disproportionately impacted by teen pregnancy just like they are with every other indicator. This is the norm . It’s kind of like the generational cycle of poverty, where customs and beliefs are passed down from generation to generation and teen pregnancy isn’t seen as a real issue. I think the lack of enough positive outlets for youth to express themselves has a lot to do with the prevalence. The lack of sex education also plays a significant part.
Finally, tell me about your daughter? You might say that she’s indirectly responsible for all of this. How has she changed you?
She taught me how to be courageous and how to love myself when my community and family and friends were coming down hard on me. They all play a huge role in discouraging teen parents, by the way. My daughter taught me how to believe in myself and love myself regardless of the mistakes I’ve made. She’s been my main motivator. I couldn’t ask for a better daughter.
When I completed my graduate degree, I was walking off the stage and she screamed, ‘I’m so proud of you mommy!!” She’s lived through the sacrifices everyday that was necessary for me to go to school, but she still understands. My daughter is beyond her years. VFP
For more information on Generation Moms, please visit their website by clicking here.
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