We asked her not to abort her child. Now what?
This is the question that Teen Mother Choices International (TMCI) aims to answer, specifically when it comes to teenage mothers.
The organization works with teen moms who are parenting with “a baby on their hip.” Teen Mother Choices (TMC) was formed in 1989, and Teen Mother Choices International (TMCI) was established in 2007 to use their expertise to train and equip churches to help care for these teen mothers.
Christa March, founder and president of TMCI, noted that “the most difficult thing that we have to go through is to wake up people to the fact that teenagers are not eternally pregnant. They will give birth.”
(Live Action News author Kristi Burton Brown wrote a detailed piece about TMCI, including March’s background prior to founding the ministry.)
According to March, the idea for the program came in early 1988 when she was pregnant with her son. As she walked through the shopping mall during a school day, she noticed girls pushing baby strollers. It was evident to her that they were not childcare providers, but the children’s mothers.
In the food court, March spoke with 20 teen moms for about two hours. She was shocked by how much these girls wanted to talk with somebody.
“Basically I was crying as I left the mall and saying to myself, ‘I’ve asked those girls not to abort their children, but I’ve never given one thought as to what happens to them afterwards,’” March said.
March contacted local, state and federal organizations to find out what organizations existed solely to serve teenage moms who had given birth to their children and chosen to parent them. She was shocked to find that there wasn’t a single one at the time (1988-1989).
According to a study by Child Trends research center published in 2010, teenage mothers are less likely than other young women to receive a high school diploma by the time they are 22 years old. Nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) young women who did not give birth as teenagers receive a high school diploma before age 22. Roughly one in two (51 percent) teen mothers earn a high school diploma by that same age.
The prospects for young teen mothers is even more stark. The same Child Trends study found that just 38 percent of young women who have a child before age 18 receive a high school diploma by the time they are 22, compared with 60 percent who have their first child at age 18 or 19.
Girls between ages 13 and 23 who are part of a TMCI program are required to go back to school to work toward at least their high school education, and must maintain a “C” average.
“I don’t care if they choose to go to traditional school or night school or work for their GED, as long as they’re able to get their high school education,” said March. “And we will do anything that we can do on our end to make sure that they are able to do that – whether that means help them with transportation, help them with child care – whatever it takes to get them to get their education.”
TMCI’s services that make it possible for girls to go back to school is what often draws girls to their program. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that 100 percent of [girls entering the TMCI program] haven’t graduated from high school.”
This was the case for Laura Castillo, who was 16 years old when she gave birth to her daughter Rain—now 18 years old—and entered into a Teen Mother Choices program in Gurnee, Illinois.
“If it wasn’t for TMCI, there’s no way I would have finished high school,” said Castillo, who described working 52 hours a week between two jobs while attending high school. “I just couldn’t afford day care and going to school and then all the other things that came along with having to take care of a kid at the same time.”
Castillo now works in finance for a hospital products company and runs her own business, Whispering Rain Creations, on the side. She has two more children, a girl and a boy.
As someone who at the time was “very anti-religion of any kind,” Castillo was initially turned off by the Christian ministry. She said that although she disagrees with some aspects of the program, for the most part it was a positive experience. She and March remain friends to this day.
March believes that the church is the best place for teen moms to get help. She said that her “driving force now is to wake up churches to say: ‘We can do this. We can take care of this people group.’ Because schools can’t figure out how to do it. Government agencies can’t figure out how to do it. But we do – we know we have the answers and we have all the resources that she needs. We can do this. We could make an impact in our communities, specifically in the lives of teenage moms and their children if we decided to reach out to help them.”
Castillo said the leader of the Gurnee, Illinois office at the time, whom she contacted while pregnant with Rain, was the first person to congratulate her. Castillo explained further: “[She] seemed legitimately excited about, you know, being able to help me and the path that I was choosing. And for me that was huge because it was the very first person that was like, ‘Yeah, you can do this.’ And everybody there had that mentality that it didn’t matter kind of what background you were from or what you were going through, that you could do this. So that was an amazing thing to have in my life at the time.”
In terms of specific services that TMCI offers, Castillo said the most significant was the financial support, as they paid for a licensed day care provider for girls in the program meeting the education and work requirements. “Without that, there is no way at sixteen making minimum wage I would have been able to afford daycare to continue to go to high school.”
TMCI focuses on helping the girls navigate and balance what they describe as the five life roles of a teenage mom: teenager, mother, student, employee and seeker. At least one of these topics is addressed each week at life skills workshops, taught by local church volunteers.
Castillo recalled life skills workshops on various topics, from general car maintenance to creating a budget and balancing a checkbook to becoming certified in infant CPR.
When it comes to how people can best help teen moms, Castillo shared:
Mainly, don’t judge something that you don’t understand. Obviously this girl gave birth for a reason. She’s taking the responsibility to take care of the child that she created, which is huge. I mean, there are adults that don’t even do that. So for a child to take on that responsibility? That is an amazing person.
And I think they deserve to be treated with respect and not kind of scorned in shame, which is a lot of what our society puts on teen parents. You assume that they’re a bad kid or, you know, ‘Oh, they goofed up.’ Well, obviously they didn’t plan to get pregnant but it happened and they’re taking responsibility and that’s – I think that’s amazing.
Castillo noted that every teen mother needs something different, but that they all need support. She added that sharing personal knowledge as a parent, being available to answer questions and offering financial help like money and gift cards are also helpful to teenage mothers.
Girls in a TMCI program are connected with a mentor, who helps the young mother plan goals and often provides additional support and advice.
While the girls have already given birth when they enter the program, March believes abortion rates might be lower if girls knew about organizations like TMCI. She said that while working with moms who aborted their first child and then gave birth to the second, “We often hear, ‘If I would have known about you guys before, I would not have aborted my first child.’”
She added that adoption is often overlooked, and so they think if they can’t support a child, then they must abort him or her.
March also believes that helping girls who chose to give life is the next step of the pro-life movement.
According to March, for many years pregnancy resource centers did not refer girls to Teen Mother Choices. But she pointed out that that is all starting to change. Two of TMCI’s programs are housed at pregnancy resource centers – one in Salem, Missouri, and one in Austin, Texas.
She hopes to see greater collaboration between the organizations.
“[…] Pregnancy care centers do an incredible job in helping teenage girls that find themselves pregnant, and find resources […] to help them,” said March. “We do the next step. And if we could just link arms, I think we could accomplish a whole lot more in the pro-life movement.”
While TMCI does not work with pregnant teens, they refer girls to pregnancy resource centers. “We always, if a pregnant teen calls us – any of our offices – the first thing we do is find out where she’s located and is she close enough to a pregnancy resource center, or pregnancy care center, because that’s where she’s going to get the best help,” said March.
March’s love and respect for teenage moms comes from a personal place. March aborted her first child as a teenager, and described finding redemption through Jesus Christ.
“My abortion – I take responsibility for my abortion. I did that. That was my choice,” said March. “But I believe, because I believe that our God is a redeeming God, I believe that He takes our absolute worst mistakes and turns them into the most beautiful things when we give them to Him. I view my abortion as my scar on my life that could have just been a scar, but God allowed it to become actually a beauty mark because I don’t know if I had not gone through this abortion, if I would really have the love and respect that I have for teenage moms today. So God took something really bad and turned something good out of it. […] Am I proud of my abortion? Nope. Not in the least bit. But am I glad that God could do something good with it? Absolutely.”