Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Melissa Keeps it Moving

Many Americans do not learn what survival means until after college when their parents stop supporting them financially.  Even then, many twenty-somethings still call mom or dad for comfort after a bad day or to seek advice before buying a car or first home.  Having grown up in foster care, Melissa did not have parents to lean on.  At 18 years old, Melissa’s family consisted of close friends.  In October 1996, Melissa gave birth to her son, Issaiah.  He then became her family and she, his “keeper.

More than a decade before MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, 18-year-old Melissa Rodriguez shared her story of teen pregnancy and child birth on a radio segment called Radio Diaries.  The program first aired in 1996 on NPR’s All Things Considered and featured teens telling their life stories into a tape-recorder.  Last week, NPR aired Melissa’s follow-up story as part of the series Teenage Diaries Revisited (recorded in 2012).

Photo by David Gilkey/NPR
In the early years following Issaiah’s birth, Melissa discovered the beauty of motherhood as she marveled at her son’s smile and his wiggle dances.  But she often felt tired and wished for someone to share the parenting duties so she could take a walk or smoke an occasional cigarette.  Like most teen moms, she regretted having sex at a young age and wished she would have waited to have her son.

To pay the bills, Melissa worked as a secretary for $6 an hour before signing up for government assistance receiving $400 and $120 in food stamps each month.  The welfare program allowed her to spend more time with Issaiah, but her monthly allowance did not help her get ahead.  So she started stripping to make up the difference.  The extra income enabled her to earn a college degree and ultimately attain a day job.  Today, she works as a customer service representative with a cable company and loves fixing problems for people.  “It’s my calling,” she says.

In Melissa’s 2012 recordings, she talks about the challenges of raising a son with Cerebellar Ataxia, a neurological condition that interferes with balance and coordination.  Although Issaiah (now 16 years old) grew out of his physical ailments, he struggles to retain information.  Melissa also has a second son, six-year-old Tyrone.  She raises both boys on her own.

Melissa is a survivor, and she knows it.  What 18-year-old Melissa might not have known is that chances were pretty good that she would become a teen mom. Older teens (18 – 19 year olds) have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, as do low-income teens and those living in foster care.  Melissa’s life could have turned out a number of devastating ways.  She could have become addicted to drugs or ended up living on the streets.  And while Melissa’s life is not easy, she has a family and job she loves.  Something inside tells her to “keep it moving,” she says.  Something somewhere gives her hope.  

by Kemi Ogunji, Executive and Development Assistant, SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy 

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