ALLOUEZ — When Agustina Medina found out that she was pregnant at age 16, she was understandably scared. She didn’t know who to tell, how she was going to finish high school, who was going to care for her child while she was in school.
Enter Jeanna Zuelke, Teen Parent Program case manager in the Children and Family Department of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.
“My first meeting involves talking about their goals, what they want to accomplish while they are pregnant or while they are parenting,” said Zuelke in an interview with The Compass. “The most common goals we see are getting them set up for WIC (Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children), continuing their education, child care assistance, finding a good day care and then a driver’s license. I tell them that I’m their personal coach. Anything they want to do, we can find a way to get it done. No goal is a stupid goal.”
The Teen Parent Program, supported by Bishop’s Appeal funds allocated to Catholic Charities, receives referrals from high schools and the Community Partnership for Children, an agency that meets with mothers in hospitals immediately after they give birth. No money is provided directly to clients. The case management program connects the teen parents to resources. Zuelke works with teens who are pregnant and those who have a child.
“What is nice about getting them prenatally is you get to build that relationship with them,” she said. “When they are pregnant, you get to go over some exciting stuff about the birth and delivery. That repertoire is already built, so when they have the baby, they are really excited to tell you.”
Most teenagers choose to parent, she added.
“It’s very rare for a teenager to do an adoption plan because of their brain development at that age,” explained Zuelke. “They look at adoption as a negative thing. It happens, but not often.”
Agustina had her daughter, Bella, now age 3, when she was 17. Her story is among those featured in the 2016 Bishop’s Appeal video.
“My three goals of finding a place to live, graduating high school and getting my driver’s license were successful,” she said in an interview for the video. “(I received) a lot of help from Jeanna from Catholic Charities. We did one thing at a time.”
“Agustina did summer school and graduated early,” said Zuelke. “Her (school) attendance was very good. Her daughter is adorable and right on track developmentally. Agustina is a very motivated person. I’m really proud of her. She has her own car, does all her financials; she’s very independent.”
School attendance is a challenge for many teen mothers. Some choose a GED (General Education Development) program.
“There is still some stigma with teen parents,” said Zuelke. “They don’t want to go to school when they are pregnant, when they are dealing with morning sickness. Attendance is definitely a challenge.”
Zuelke currently has 30 active teen parent clients. In 2015, she worked with approximately 90 teens. Parental consent is needed when the client is younger than 18.
“My average client works with me a year to 18 months,” explained Zuelke. “Some only need a few things. Others I have worked with for three or four years. The only requirement is they need to be a teen parent and they need to meet with me once a month.”
Teen fathers are a part of the program. Zuelke has met the fathers of most of her client’s babies.
“Some of them meet with me, but they don’t want to open a case,” she said. “If they open a case, they can get the same resources. I love working with couples. I have two or three active couples right now.”
A teen parent group meets weekly. The gatherings include food and presentations on a variety of topics ranging from dental health to financial planning. Teen parent mentors are available to provide the teen parents someone to listen and provide advice other than a counselor.
Meetings open with a “peek of the week,” which is designed to empower the young parents, said Kendra Kawula, a Catholic Charities intern who works with the group. They must share a positive thing that happened during the week. An incentive program encourages teen parents to attend the group meetings, added Kawula. If they complete a form, teen parents receive an item, such as diapers, wipes, clothing or shampoo, at the following week’s meeting. The teen parent group also coordinates outings in the community, including a gathering at the Children’s Museum of Green Bay, for example.
“Every now and then we will do crafts and scrapbooking with the teen parent group,” said Zuelke. “We’ve done the tie blankets. They love those. They get to make something and take it home with them.”
Witnessing teen parents achieving their goals is the reward for Zuelke.
“They are really strong. They chose life,” she said. “It’s nice to go to work every day and love your job.”