After getting pregnant at age 15 and dropping out of high school, Aly Griffin got her GED and tried college twice but couldn’t find a formula for success.
“Both times, I ended up dropping out within the first week because I did not have the support” emotionally or financially, Griffin said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation urges the country to do more to support young parents like Griffin, who’s trying college again at 24, by enacting policies and programs to help them reach their full potential and build a strong foundation for their children.
“By helping young parents navigate the difficult transitions to both adulthood and parenthood, we can change the odds for both them and their children — truly an investment that will pay double dividends for many years to come,” according to a policy report from the foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center. “The nation can’t afford to have these young people sidelined from the economic and civic life of our country, and we can’t afford to have their children deprived of a strong start in life.”
The report, which was released jointly by the foundation and Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA), primarily focuses on 18- to 24-year-old parents and the children who live with them.
Kentucky has about 50,000 young adult parents, and nearly 40 percent of them are neither working nor going to school, according to KYA. The Commonwealth also is home to about 57,000 children who are living with at least one 18- to 24-year-old parent.
Making ends meet can be difficult for such families. Kentucky ranks second in the nation for the percentage of children with young parents living in low-income families (less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level), according to KYA. At 81 percent, it trails Georgia and Maine, which are tied at 85 percent, the report notes.
Nationally, “most young parents work, yet their median family income hovers just above the poverty threshold,” according to the report. “They have attained less education than peers, leaving them inadequately prepared for today’s well-paying jobs and yet too young to access certain key public benefits and services. Jobs that pay a family-supporting wage are increasingly limited and require some postsecondary education or training, arenas often closed to young parents because of the associated costs, coupled with unaffordable and inflexible housing arrangements, lack of child care, rigid hours and other barriers.”
In conjunction with the report, KYA issued three main recommendations: strengthen access to the Kentucky Child Care Assistance Program that helps families pay for child care; involve more young parents in the state’s HANDS program, which teaches parenting skills; and make sure workforce development programs include effective mentoring to help enable young adults to provide for their children.
“Young parents are struggling and need pragmatic solutions to succeed in today’s economy and provide healthy and hopeful homes for their children,” Terry Brooks, KYA’s executive director, said in a news release. “These young parents face unique challenges as they reach milestones of adulthood and parenthood all at once.
“In fact, parent and child are undergoing the first and second most important periods of human development together. For the state, that means there are unique opportunities to strengthen families by helping the young parents learn during this period of growth while also figuring out how to be effective teachers for their children.”
Griffin was spending long hours waiting tables, missing precious time with her daughter when she decided something had to change.
She’s now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Louisville while living at a housing campus run by Family Scholar House, which was highlighted in the report as a model program. It provides housing and educational support for single parents and foster alumni, helping them to access grants and other types of benefits to meet their families’ needs.
“It changes the opportunities for the whole family,” said Cathe Dykstra, chief possibility officer for Family Scholar House. “If we really want to lift children up out of poverty, we have to help their parents.”
Participants live at one of Family Scholar House’s five campuses in Louisville, while pursuing post-secondary education, from apprenticeships to four-year degrees, usually while working part-time or doing work-study stints.
“Last year alone, we served 3,571 single parents, 4,913 children and 349 foster alumni,” said Dykstra, who also is the nonprofit’s president and chief executive. “We love what we do, but today, I have 788 families on the waiting list” because “the needs in our community are so great.”
Griffin has been a Family Scholar House resident for about two years and lives with her 8-year-old daughter, Kairi. The program provides income-based Section 8 housing and helps parents to arrange for child care if necessary.
“With the Scholar House, I have so much emotional support; especially in the beginning trying to get into the program, it was just like an amazing atmosphere to see like they actually care,” she said. “They want each individual who comes through their doors to walk away with something.”
Along with other services, Griffin has taken financial and academic workshops and an etiquette class.
“They really took a lot of time to say, ‘What do these women and men need?’” she said.
The program has been a lifeline for Destiny Clark, 22, as she works toward her ultimate goal of becoming a surgeon. She’s living at Family Scholar House’s newest location, off Cane Run Road, while studying biology at Ivy Tech Community College.
“I could be living in an apartment anywhere, but I’d also be paying full rent, and I wouldn’t be able to go downstairs to the food pantry to get food when I needed it, and I wouldn’t have an academic coach that I am so comfortable talking to. I mean about depression – everything,” she said. “He’s so resourceful. He’s always giving me stuff and showing me where I can go. … They try to point you in the correct direction.”
LaShondra Owens, 24, said she’s gotten advice on everything from where to get grants and tutoring for school to how to furnish her apartment.
“My family advocate and my academic coach, they’re like my family,” said Owens, who’s studying biology at Jefferson Community & Technical College while residing at Family Scholar House. “They’re just really helpful.”