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Baby Steps: New nonprofit gains steam as support system for region's youngest parents

Baby Steps: New nonprofit gains steam as support system for region's youngest parents

Baby Steps: New nonprofit gains steam as support system for region's youngest parents
Ayrelle Lewis, 17, holds 1-year-old Kaiden Lewis at Young Parents United on Jay Street in Schenectady Thursday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY - Parents learn a lot of lessons in the first months of a baby’s life. Chief among them: babies can make a mess.

“We just didn’t know she was gonna spit up as much as she did,” said 18-year-old Audrey Garcia, whose daughter Luna Rose is about six months old.

“Talk about it,” agreed 17-year-old Shay Chandler, whose daughter Princess is also a few months old.

Sitting at a conference table in a Jay Street office building, Shay and Audrey swapped parenting war stories and played with their daughters.

Audrey and Shay, both on track to graduate from Schenectady High School next month, are part of a new nonprofit that opened in Schenectady last summer and has grown to serve around 40 teen parents in the Capital Region.

Ginni Egan in June moved into the Jay Street space and launched the nonprofit Young Parents United from a cramped office. Egan quickly took over an adjacent office vacated by an accountant, which now doubles as a nursery and computer lab, where parents can work on homework, job applications or filing for benefits. Egan has also taken over the conference room on the other side of her original office and a store room past the conference room. The store room is filled with clothes, toys and other essential baby supplies – a steady flow of donations from individuals and organizations throughout the area helps keep the room well stocked.

On Thursday, Audrey and Shay sifted through a crib full of recently-donated clothes, toys and other supplies. When the kids have grown out of their clothes or aged past toys, the parents can return the items back to the store room. There’s always another young parent and baby who can use it.

“Things come and they go right out,” Egan said.

Egan, a registered nurse for nearly three decades, plays the role of advocate and case manager for her young parent “clients,” spends much of her time answering calls, texts and emails, helping arrange rides and childcare. She helps the young parents problem solve countless issues that arise throughout the day, assisting with housing difficulties, personal strife and much more.

“Putting out fires,” she said. “Clients message me all the time, all day and all night.”

As she showed off her expanded office, Egan took a phone call from a client who was running out of food in the last days before she received a new month’s food stamps.

“I don’t have anything in the house,” the young woman told Egan, worried how she would get through the next couple of days.

“I have snacks in the office,” Egan said in a cheery and calming voice. “I have food I can give you.”

Each emergency can be used as part of a broader lesson.

“We are working on her budgeting, that’s why she’s calling me,” Egan said a few minutes after hanging up the phone.

Finding childcare and transportation to appointments, work or government offices are constant hurdles for many of the young parents. A visit to a social services offices can sometimes turn into a return visit because a single document or form is missing. Egan often finds herself quarterbacking a team of volunteers to coordinate rides for parents.

“People can’t move forward if they can’t get around,” Egan said.

But the program’s aim is to also develop strong parenting skills and help the parents envision a life beyond the daily struggles of teenage parenting. Egan, who gave birth to her first child at age 15 and was raising three kids by the time she was 20, said her chief goals are to help stabilize families and set them on a path of independence. She makes a plan with each parent she enrolls in the program; the parents meet regularly at the Jay Street office for parenting lessons that range across subjects. Volunteers watch the children, so the parents can focus on the lessons.

Egan and her volunteers helped the parents with Thanksgiving meals, Christmas trees and presents. In the fall, the young parents went apple picking with babies in tow.

Egan, who in the past couple of years returned to Niskayuna where she had raised her own kids, said Schenectady County's high teen pregnancy rates drew her to start her nonprofit here. There's a definite need, she said.

Schenectady County in 2016 had the highest pregnancy rate in the state for women between 15 and 17 years old outside of Bronx County - 21.5 pregnancies per 1,000 women in that age group, compared to a state pregnancy rate of 13.3 for the age group. 

The parents – and the kids – keep coming. Five of the moms in the program have given birth in the past six months; three are currently pregnant. In the past week alone, Egan made contact with four new parents she expected to enroll in the program. The referrals come in from other nonprofit agencies, doctors, Child Protective Services other young parents. A desperate and pregnant 20-year-old one day knocked on the office door seeking help, Egan said.

Egan’s lastest count: 39 parents and 41 kids.

But Ayrelle Lewis, 17, was the first young parent to join Egan's program, referred to her in June by Healthy Families Schenectady. At first she resisted the help.

“Being a new mom I’m like, ‘No, I don’t need help, I’m ok,’” Ayrelle said. “I was thinking 'I’ve got this, I’ve got everything I need. I don’t need anyone else.'”

But she gave Egan a chance to explain how she could help, and the free baby supplies are a strong draw.

“She opened up pretty quick, because the next day there was a phone call with an emergency,” Egan recalled.

In the earliest months of her son’s life, Ayrelle worked at a Walmart outside Saratoga Springs, commuting by way of two buses. As a 16-year-old, she was limited to working a night shift; she said she had to leave two hours before her shift started and wouldn’t return home until midnight or later most nights she worked.

“That was my life for five months,” she said. Her 1-year-old son, Kaiden, was just three months old when she started the job. “I needed to support him and make sure he had everything.”

Egan took Aryelle to Washington Irving to sit down with the principal to walk through the process for earning a high school equivalency diploma. She helped Aryelle navigate the state Education Department in trying to get high school equivalency credit for Regents exams she passed as a sophomore.

After earning the high school equivalency credential, Aryelle enrolled at the Paul Mitchell school in downtown Schenectady and plans to graduate from the program next year and then working as a cosmetologist.

“She helped me with getting my GED, helped me with getting diapers, clothing, doctor appointments for my son. She’s done a lot for me,” Ayrelle said. “It is good to have a support system and someone who will be there to help you. If I didn’t have help or support, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Aryelle, who is pregnant with her second child, said she wants to go to college and ultimately become a lawyer who works with children and “helps bring families together.”

“I want to be able to support my children, so they don’t ever want or need for anything,” she said.

Baby Shower for baby boxes

In February the current class in the Capital Region Chamber’s annual Leadership Tech Valley program selected Young Parents United for a service project. The class in the leadership development program developed a plan to create baby boxes complete with a crib and supplies for the first three months of life – giving the boxes to Egan's clients.

“The most important thing we were looking for is to have a lasting impact in the community,” said Challen Banach, a marketing specialist at the SI Group and a member of the leadership group. “We felt this program helps parents but also sets up children for success.”

A “baby shower” fundraiser will serve as a capstone to the group's efforts to support Young Parents United. The fundraiser is scheduled for May 8 at the Schenectady Armory from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The baby boxes are outfitted with resource books for parents, materials needed for healthy baby feeding, diaper bags, clothes, pacifiers, blankets, a car seat and stroller.

Ravi Ramdath, another member of the leadership group, said the boxes are modeled on a Finish program that supplies newborns with a box full of stuff to help with the first year of life.

“That box has everything they need,” he said.

Egan said the supplies are a true lifeline for young parents and their children.

“The have nothing, no funds,” Egan said. “It’s essential, because they simply don’t have it. It’s absolutely essential.”

'The long range of life'

The young parents are still young, and Egan wants them to understand that means there is more out there for them and their kids.

“A lot of young people in this age range don’t have perspective on the long range of life,” Egan said. “They begin to see there is a lot of life beyond this little situation – they are in high school with a baby.”

The mere act of uniting the parents for programs and activities has helped the young parents break through the feelings of isolation that come with teenage parenting.

“I know now I’m not the only one dealing with being a teen mother, and I don’t feel like an outcast anymore,” Aryelle said.

While the vast majority of Egan's clients are mothers, she works with fathers too.

“I pitched in when I could; I don’t have much of an income, so I can’t do everything,” said Mike, Luna Rose's father and Audrey's fiance. “That’s when we came in here and found what we need.”

Mike said he hopes his daughter doesn’t have to experience the same hardships he and Audrey have experienced. The young parents were grateful for finding Egan and determined to give their daughter a better life than they had.

“Luna’s first Christmas wouldn’t have been possible without Ginni,” Audrey said.

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