WHEELING - Lynn never planned to become pregnant, but the experience has changed her life forever.
Lynn, a 16-year-old whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a West Virginia resident currently living at Crittenton Services in Wheeling. She said before she became pregnant, she was "wild'' and didn't care about anything other than having fun. She said she thought everything in life was easy.
"It's not easy anymore,'' she said, referring to being a mom. "You don't worry about your friends like you used to. It's not about your friends, and it's not all about you, either. It's a whole other life you have to take care of. (I) don't get to do much now."
When Lynn found out she was pregnant, she said she was scared and she didn't want to tell her mother. She considered terminating the pregnancy because she didn't think she would be able to raise a child at her age. Her mother advised her to keep the baby, however, assuring Lynn that she would help take care of him.
Teen moms such as Lynn are not alone. According to a new report from the 2012 West Virginia Kids Count data book, West Virginia is one of the 10 worst states for teen pregnancy rates in the nation. Forty-five teen girls out of 1,000 in West Virginia gave birth in 2010, significantly higher than the national rate of 34 per 1,000.
After she had her son, Lynn's attendance at school dropped dramatically. She said she didn't want to entrust her son's care to anyone but herself and would skip school to care for him.
Her truancy caused her to be court-ordered to Crittenton Services, where she is currently undergoing a therapy program.
"Since he came into this world, I finally realized what life is really about. I was wild before I had him and now that he came into my world, I woke up and realized that life is not easy. I used to think everything was easy, but it's really hard,'' Lynn said. "There's not being able to leave whenever you want, you have to watch them and everything they do, you have to feed them, change diapers. ... It's hard, but I'm doing it.''
Lynn's son is now a 1-year-old and Lynn is in ninth grade at Wheeling Park High School while she goes through therapy at Crittenton. She is doing well academically and makes As and Bs and has a grade-point average of 3.1. Her son goes to Crittenton's day care center while Lynn attends class. Lynn said before coming to Crittenton, she never realized the importance of an education.
"If I'm not going to school, what is his life going to be like? What's his future going to be like? If I don't have a good job, how am I supposed to raise him? If he sees me doing all these good things, he's going to look up and do the same thing,'' she said.
After she finishes the therapy program at Crittenton, Lynn will move back to her home town to live with her mother who will care for Lynn's son during the day when she is at school.
Lynn said she plans to attend college after she graduates.
Lynn's parents are deaf, so she has been able to communicate through sign language since she was a toddler. She hopes to put her skills and experiences to use and eventually become a social worker and a sign language interpreter. Before coming to Crittenton, Lynn said she never thought about what she wanted to be in life.
Though it is hard to be a teen mother, Lynn said there are good parts to being a parent and in many ways, the experience has helped her grow as a person.
"Watching him grow, wondering what he is going to be like, how he acts. His personality gets different and different as he gets older, that's fun. He always puts a smile on my face,'' Lynn said.
"If there was a teenager that was pregnant, I would explain to her that it's going to be hard, it really is. Just because you have a kid, it doesn't stop you from future goals. You can always be what you want. Like I want to be a lifeguard this summer and I'll do it. It's not going to stop me from anything.''
Kathy Szafran, president and chief executive officer of Crittenton Services, said she believes the key to Lynn's success is the amount of support she received during her time at Crittenton. She said the key factor that keeps teen pregnancy rates high in West Virginia is lack of support and poverty.
"For many girls, there is no way out and the adult males in their lives, they see them as the answer. A lot of our girls come from broken and abusive families. These girls are looking for a way out, they don't see a future. A lot of these ladies have been so abused, they don't feel a personal sense of worth and value. Sexuality is the only thing they have,'' Szafran said.
Pregnancy, Szafran said, is often a way for teenage girls to escape their sense of isolation.
Starting sex education at a young age and instilling young girls with a sense of self-worth may be a solution to combating teen pregnancy rates, Szafran said.