Tuesday, September 25, 2001

A better start

A vision for next generation

        Joy is not looking too joyful. It's early. She appears not to be a morning person. The breakfast menu is not to her liking. Plus she's learning to use the potty.

        That's a lot of pressure for a 2-year-old.

        And it's about the only kind of pressure we ought to tolerate for our little kids. They shouldn't, for instance, worry about whether they are going to get cuffed around. They shouldn't have to wonder whether they will come home to an empty house. They shouldn't have to start school without knowing the alphabet, numbers, how to wash their hands, how to share.

Sorry statistics

        They should be like Joy, wondering what flavor of yogurt they'll accept before somebody reads them a book, teaches them a new game or a new word.

        So, where do we start?

        Marcia Simmons decided to start with their mothers, aiming her considerable energy and smarts toward the young ones, teen-age girls who were getting pregnant, dropping out of school, getting pregnant again. And again.

        She learned the sorry statistics, she says, while doing her master's thesis in pediatric nursing. One of every five girls between 15 and 17 will become pregnant. Nearly 70 percent of them will drop out of school and go on welfare. Children of teen-age moms are 10 times more likely to be and stay poor, 2.7 times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned.

        Now, Marcia has some statistics of her own. The agency she began 11 years ago, Dominican Community Services/VISIONS, helps more than 90 percent of its young mothers finish their senior year of high school. More than 90 percent are employed at the same job for six months or more.

        And the kids? Well, 100 percent of them are in a safe place, where they get their immunizations on time. The atmosphere is educational, not custodial.

New digs, new hope

        Wednesday, Marcia and her impressive staff will open a renovated building at 425 Ezzard Charles Drive. a solid neighbor in a community in considerable disarray. More than 800 families in the West End will be relocated by the massive housing redevelopment in the neighborhood. Connections will be broken. Ties severed.

        But not this one.

        The new location across from Taft High School is just two blocks from the first center. Fresh paint, new carpet, an old challenge. Kids having kids. “Caring for our children so they can care for their own” is the DCS motto. “Giving them the tools to succeed” is how Marcia puts it.

        VISIONS also has a preteen program for girls who have no kids and are not pregnant called, “It's going to get tough, girlfriend.” And nobody at VISIONS sugarcoats the future.

        Right now, this agency serves 291 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years. It is the lifeline for 95 young mothers and 75 young girls. Well, officially it serves them.

        But really it serves us all. Multiply these moms and girls and kids by the money they won't need from us in the future. Put it in terms of brains and talent not squandered. Maybe Joy will come up with a cure for cancer or write the great American novel.

        But this week she is learning how to use the potty. She is in a safe and clean and friendly place. She's not hungry or frightened. Her mother can worry about school or work — whatever challenge she has right now.

        And for Joy, it's early.

       E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.


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