A teen mom's tale of determination

Shunned by family and friends after becoming pregnant, Camelia Carter now helping many through her Mommy & Me Foundation

Observer staff reporter

Sunday, April 21, 2019

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Camelia Carter admits that getting pregnant at the age of 18 was perhaps one of the most difficult periods in her life.

Shortly after leaving high school, Carter's primary sources of support — her family and friends — withdrew when they found out she was with child.

“When I got pregnant, the support that I would have wanted was never really there. I was living with my mother at the time and she pretty much ignored me for the entire pregnancy. I think I disappointed her and hurt her so much that she just ignored me. It wasn't until after I gave birth that she came around,” Carter, now 36 years old, told the Jamaica Observer.

“Luckily, my daughter's father stayed by me the whole nine months, so I had him as support. But I remember that when my friends found out, they basically disappeared. I had no more friends,” Carter said.

However, through sheer determination and with the encouragement of a small circle of teachers and mentors, the young mother was able to escape the doom and gloom scenarios often portrayed for teenage mothers.

Today, Carter is an associate realtor with Golden Gates Realty in St Ann and the proud founder of the Mommy & Me Foundation — a non-profit organisation in Linstead, St Catherine, catering to the needs of teen mothers primarily in the rural parts of the parish.

However, like any success story, Carter's rise above the odds meant sacrifice. With the financial backing of her father, Carter enrolled at the Stony Hill HEART Academy where she did accounting & computer studies. That, though, made motherhood more challenging.

“I had to board at Stony Hill and that was the hardest thing to do because it was the first time I had to stay away from my daughter so long, although I went home every weekend. It was especially rough on my daughter. She would call me and tell me about her day and what she did at school, and she would read to me before bedtime. Sometimes she'd ask me to come home because she missed me. She would call sometimes at nights or late evening when I had group studies so I could help her with her homework, and I'd have to leave the group to talk with her,” Carter shared.

“On weekends it was hard, as I had to come home with my assignments and still do all the motherly things — wash, spend time with my daughter, help with homework, iron her uniform for the week — and still had to balance homework and just a little me time, so I wouldn't mentally break down,” Carter added.

Ambitious and wanting to attain tertiary education, Carter went on to complete a real estate course at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech).

“I cried a few times during my study, but it paid off. I graduated among the top performers in the class and was valedictorian. And despite the issues I faced, I still managed to finance myself for the real estate short course at UTech while stretching the dollar to take care of my daughter and go to school,” she said.

“At no point was balancing the studies, motherhood, and work easy. Most times my social life got the back seat but I am grateful I walked that road, as I am able to advise, motivate and inspire young girls to go hard after their goals,” said Carter

This has been her sole mission since launching the Mommy & Me Foundation in 2016, a calling which started with a mere visit to the nearest clinic.

“I started going to the clinic to find teen mothers. The first clinic I went to was the Linstead clinic, then I went on to the Ewarton clinic. At first I got mixed reactions from the girls; some were open to speak, others were shy and didn't want to get involved. But most of them were interested because we were giving out items,” Carter said.

In an effort to address the immediate needs of the girls, providing care packages for expectant mothers became a primary activity of the foundation.

“We have baby showers for all our teen mothers where, before they go to the hospital, we give them care packages with items for the baby and we also put together smaller packages for the mothers as well. So the girls who come to us, we put them in groups based on their due date, and we have four big baby showers per year, one every quarter,” she explained.

“I also partnered with the women's centre in Spanish Town so that girls who come to me, I can refer them to the centre if they were not going before, because one of the aims of the foundation is to keep girls in school. It is easier to get them back in school after they have completed their time at the women's centre,” Carter told the Sunday Observer.

The foundation also offers mentorship to girls who are at risk of becoming pregnant, particularly those in rural communities who are especially vulnerable because of their economic situation.

“When I look at the rate of teen mothers, they are mainly from rural areas. Most of these girls have limited resources in every aspect that you can think of, and so men are always preying on them. There are men who will tell them 'you give me this and I will give you that'. Sometimes girls stop going to school because the parents can't find lunch money, so men will offer them money and they will take it,” she said.

“These are the things that girls, as well as teen moms, especially from rural areas, often face. So they have to think, 'What do I really want?' And we are here to tell them that there is always another way to get help, even though it looks hard. But because they are still teenagers, their brains are not fully developed and they might not be thinking about their future. They are really just thinking about filling a gap in the present,” Carter argued.

“We try to guide them, although we can't tell them what to do. But we let them know that there are other ways of getting assistance. We encourage them to ask for assistance, because at that age they don't want to do anything they are going to regret,” she said.

“For the teen mothers however, the sessions that they take are mostly motivational. But we try to tell them that whatever their circumstance, we do not judge; we love you just the same and we want you to be the best you can be.”

Carter noted that teen mothers often face stigma and ridicule, which sometimes derail their schooling.

“Going back to school is another challenge for teen moms because they face a lot of stigma. One girl stopped from school because of the jeering and the mocking she got once they found out that she was transferred to that school because she became pregnant. This girl basically lost it and there were instances where even teachers said things that hurt her feelings. She couldn't take it anymore so she gave up going to school,” Carter said.

“Even at home there is pressure, because sometimes the parents are not supportive enough. They know that the mother might need a baby-sitter or some help with the child when they have something to do, but that support is usually not there. Most of these girls have to be dealing with just being a teenager, then being a mother and trying to make ends meet,” she said.

Often, these things take a toll on a young mother's mental and emotional health. As such, empowerment sessions have also become a staple with the Mommy &Me Foundation.

“For the past three years we have been doing a youth empowerment session, which is a free session of empowerment for young girls. This year we focused on resume writing, interview skills, health and physical activity. Because we wanted to align with the Ministry on Health on the sugary drink and child obesity and child diabetes problem, we gave the mothers that as well so that they can be better parents. We had about 120 girls attending the event,” Carter said.

In all of this, the proud founder said the impact of the foundation has been visible in the lives of several girls, some of whom have adjusted their mindset and who are excelling academically.

“We have a young lady who recently got a certificate because she did so well in mathematics. If anybody knows what parenting is like, it can be hectic. Now, imagine being a teenager and having the responsibility of taking care of a child before leaving for school in the morning, then going to school and trying to learn. That was one of those moments when I realised that I am having an impact,” Carter shared.

“To be able to speak with these girls and say, 'look, I was where you are and my choices have placed me where I am today'; there are so many of us who were teen moms who have been able to achieve and make something of ourselves, and I see where their attitude changes. So counsellors will call me and tell me that girls who come to Mommy and Me, their attitude has improved, and I feel good in myself because we are doing something that will change the life of at least one girl,” Carter said.

Carter, however, is perhaps proudest of her daughter. “My daughter is now grown and doing exceptionally well in school. She is on the honour roll so I am very proud of her. If you ask her, she will tell you she is the reason Mommy & Me exists,” Carter said with a laugh.

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