It had been a week since Robert Brant met with Shelley Bauer, a teen parent educator, and he had big news. He could now begin visiting his nearly 2-year-old son by an estranged former girlfriend.
“How do you feel about this?” Bauer asked him eagerly in her office at New Beginnings, an alternative Cedar Springs high school. “This is exciting!”
“I’m ready to take on that challenge,” said Robert, a senior. “I really want to see happiness in him, knowing in the future his father was there for him.”
The good news didn’t stop there. Robert had also received approval for $5,500 in financial aid at Grand Rapids Community College, just as he was about to graduate from New Beginnings. And he was getting more hours at his job, helping him to pay child support and save for a car.
All of which delighted Bauer, who since September has been working with Robert to help him finish school and become an involved father. She is a teen parent educator for Parents as Teachers, a program to help new and expectant parents become their children’s first and best teachers.
For her, seeing Robert complete high school, find work and learn to be a father exemplifies what she has tried to do in nearly 20 years of working with Cedar Springs teens.
“My hope for all of these kids is to graduate from school,” Bauer said. “Then they can become better parents for their children. You can’t ask your child to do well if you’re a dropout.”
Bauer is one of two PAT educators, along with Caroline Galle, funded by Cedar Springs Public Schools, and who were hired when the program was instituted in 1997. It later became a model for Bright Beginnings, a collaboration between Kent ISD and local districts that serve parents of preschoolers with home visits, play groups and developmental screenings.
Bauer specializes in working with teen parents at New Beginnings, which currently enrolls 77 students. She also serves some students at Cedar Springs High School and other at-risk parents in the community.
She still works with or keeps in touch with adults whom she had when they were in high school. The first student she worked with now is the mother of an honor-roll student. Another student-parent she helped, former All-State basketball star Austin Thornton, is now an assistant basketball coach at Michigan State University.
“It makes me feel good when I see these kids and they’re grown up and just doing well,” Bauer said, adding she knows of only two who did not graduate. “It makes me want to come to work every day.”
But she also sees a host of problems. While teen pregnancy has fallen in Kent County, it’s also getting younger; Bauer has worked with 14-year-old mothers. Teen parents often contend with homelessness and lack of family support. Their studies are complicated by the need for day care, health insurance, jobs and transportation.
Fortunately, a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services social worker and a health clinic operated by Cherry Health both operate in the Red Hawk Elementary building where New Beginnings is located. Then there is Bauer, who works with them on parenting skills while, crucially, ensuring they graduate.
“I want to convey to them that just because they have a child, doesn’t mean that things stop,” Bauer said, with clear conviction. “They can go on as far as they want to go. They can be productive citizens, and they can have for their children what they maybe never had.”
‘As Far As They Want to Go’
That seems to be happening for Robert, who had a troubled home life and lived in a storage unit for a time. He eventually left his family and now lives with his girlfriend’s parents.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” said the shy but friendly 19-year-old. “I wanted to be able to graduate. I wanted to take on my own experience.”
When he began meeting with Bauer last fall, he avoided eye contact and wouldn’t speak up in class. She worked with him on meeting her gaze and firm handshakes. She also helped him petition to see his son, Preston, and apply for jobs. He was hired at Family Dollar, where he works 20-plus hours a week.
“He was willing to do whatever you asked him,” Bauer said. “He’s doing so much better. It’s like a little flower that’s blossomed.”
Their weekly meetings have been invaluable, Robert said: “Being able to talk to her about a lot of stuff, it really helps me. Before, I never really had anybody to talk to when I had problems.”
In a recent meeting, they talked about setting up a visitation schedule with his son, whom Robert has not been able to see until now. Leafing through a parenting workbook, she went over ways to avoid “food fights” with the boy.
“Food is going to be a big deal,” she told Robert. “So you want to make food a good thing, and you want to make mealtime a happy time.”
Robert attentively soaked it up. He was eager to get started.
“Finally being able to see him, I’m really happy about it, really proud,” he said. “I am ready to take on the challenge and be a father.”