Buford High School senior Gretchen Sherman is determined to graduate in May. She plans to enroll in classes to become a medical assistant, then go to school and study to be a registered nurse.
The 17-year-old's modest dreams sound a little more daunting, however, when you consider her 5-month-old son, Kendric. Gretchen, a single mom whose own mother helps her raise Kendric, knows she's going to need all the help she can get.
While Gretchen was still pregnant, she started searching for resources for teen mothers through the Buford Community Center. She found a few groups for pregnant teenagers, including one run through a local Baptist church that advised she give her baby up for adoption, before stumbling upon Teen MOPS, short for Mothers of Preschoolers. The group, which meets at Sugar Hill United Methodist Church, is an outreach program of MOPS International, a faith-based, nonprofit group for mothers.
For young moms with big dreams, like Gretchen, the group offers a support system of other teen mothers and leaders who can offer their own parenting advice - including some who were teen moms themselves.
Shawna Patchen, coordinator of the Sugar Hill Teen MOPS group, said Gretchen and the other group members are smart girls who have a lot of opportunities ahead of them if they can stay on the right track.
"We're really proud Gretchen's stayed in school. She wants to go into nursing, and we're really encouraging her to stick with it," Patchen said.
'It will go by so fast'
Women can join MOPS during pregnancy and stick with the group until their youngest child graduates from kindergarten. While the general Sugar Hill MOPS group offers resources for mothers of all kinds - young and old, married or single, stay-at-home or working - Teen MOPS focuses on the specific challenges of being a teenage mother.
During a typical meeting, the women catch up over dinner, then listen to devotional readings, hear from guest speakers or work on craft projects. Once a month, they get a cooking lesson by helping to prepare the dinner themselves in the church's kitchen.
The girls get advice from nurses and other experts who come in as group speakers, but there's also a wealth of knowledge from the group's leaders, who range in age from their 20s to their 40s. In fact, two of the group's leaders are former teen mothers themselves.
Most people mistake leader Dawn Curry for another teen MOP. The petite 22-year-old, nine months pregnant with her second child, was in their shoes just a few years ago. She became pregnant with her 31⁄2-year-old daughter MaKenzie when she was 19 and unmarried. Unlike some of the girls in the group, whose babies' fathers are out of the picture soon after childbirth, Curry later married her daughter's father. She hopes her own story will inspire young mothers who might not be able to visualize their own fairy-tale endings.
Her co-leader Patchen was a senior in high school when she got pregnant with Jeremy, now 16. Her college plans fell through after she decided to have the baby and marry her boyfriend. Being a young mother was tough, she said.
"After I had my son, I felt a lot of judgment from friends who went on to college without me," Patchen said. "Even though I wanted to go out at night and socialize, there was still a little boy who needed to be taken care of."
Her marriage ended in divorce after four years, and during that tough time, she turned to God for the first time.
"I thought it would make my marriage work, but it didn't make a difference," Patchen said. "Later, I realized having a relationship with God doesn't mean he'll rescue you and make everything perfect."
Ten years ago, Patchen remarried and now has two children, 6 and 3 years old, with her husband. Her perspective helps her offer advice to the teen moms.
"These girls, they get all caught up in their drama. I tell them, it will go by so fast," Patchen said.
they're out there'
Most of the 13 Teen MOPS found the Sugar Hill group through word-of-mouth. In fact, many heard about it through Gretchen, who has encouraged three of her cousins, also teen moms, and several friends from Buford High School to start coming to the weekly meetings.
"Being around other people in our situation is good," Gretchen said.
The Sugar Hill group is one of the only support groups for teenage mothers in the county, so the leaders are frustrated they haven't been able to draw more members.
"We've been having a hard time reaching teenage mothers. We know they're out there, though," said Jen Tonges, another of the group's leaders.
Statistically, Patchen said, Gwinnett County has a higher teen pregnancy rate than surrounding counties. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.5 percent of births in the county during 2000 were to teenagers. That year, Gwinnett ranked 68 out of all counties in the nation for teenage pregnancy - higher than any other Georgia county.
The most valuable thing Teen MOPS can offer young mothers, everyone involved said, is a place they can go and not be judged.
"The best thing is the support these girls find amongst themselves. They start to realize they can fit into society without being an outcast. They may get that (message) from their family, but not always from society," said group mentor Burt. "Teenage pregnancy is an unfortunate thing, but it is a common occurrence. We need to support them to stop the cycle."
'We don't tell the girls what to do'
Patchen helped create the Sugar Hill's Teen MOPS group soon after she joined regular MOPS. She heard about other teen chapters, which are funded by grants so the mothers don't have to pay dues to join.
"My first thought was, 'I wish I'd had this when I was younger,'" Patchen said.
Teen MOPS is a faith-based program, but that doesn't mean the leaders judge the girls for their decision to have sex before marriage. Instead, they focus on the babies, and support the girls with their decisions about parenthood.
"We don't tell the girls what to do," Curry said. "We just wish for them not to abort."
If the girls choose to keep their babies, the group leaders just help them learn to become the best mothers they can be.
"God is the center of what we are. We want to make sure the girls remember God gave them their baby," said group mentor Mary Burt.
Because the Teen MOPS group meets at Sugar Hill United Methodist Church, the group leaders must follow the church's teachings on birth control - abstinence only. Any guest speakers have to be approved in advance by the church.
However, one of the girls in the group is married, which means the speakers can answer questions regarding safe sex as long as they make clear the advice is meant for women who are in a married relationship ... and the other girls are always listening in.
The group leaders realize that because these girls have been pregnant at least once, they may not be practicing abstinence. And even though that goes against the teachings of the church, the girls won't be kicked out of Teen MOPS.
"Mistakes happen, you think you're in love," Patchen said. "We just hope to prevent repeat pregnancies."