Thursday, June 09, 2005

How a Sandy Hill school changes troubled young moms' lives

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.06.09
EDITION: Final
SECTION: City
PAGE: B1 / Front
BYLINE: Hayley Mick
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Colour Photo: Kier Gilmour, The Ottawa Citizen / Cara Bestwill be joined at her high school graduation today by daughter, Sancia, the person Ms. Best credits with saving her life. 'You stop using drugs, you become a person. A mom.'

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How a Sandy Hill school changes troubled young moms' lives: Program breaks cycles of poverty, drugs, welfare

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Cara Best hit rock bottom the day she entered a hospital, fearing her boyfriend had broken her collar bone.

A three-time high school dropout hooked on crack cocaine and her boyfriend's violent love, life for the 18-year-old couldn't get much worse -- until a nurse made some routine checks before the X-ray.

"She asked if I was pregnant," Ms. Best said. "Four hours later, I found out I was positive, and sat down and cried."

That was just over two years ago. Today, Ms. Best will receive her high school diploma with 21 other young women -- the newest graduates of an alternative school for teenage mothers in Ottawa.

Ms. Best credits the Youville Centre with turning her life around. The bright, airy Sandy Hill building is a place where teen moms can finish high school. The program's goal, however, is to empower them to stay off welfare and become productive citizens.

"It's very important that when they leave us, they can do it without us," says program director Judith Sarginson. "You see the cycles that we're breaking," she added, citing poverty, dependence on welfare and lack of education.

An on-site day care holds 55 infants and toddlers while their mothers attend school. Social workers, doctors and councillors often visit. Safety is a priority for some who fear violent partners.

Sancia, the blue-eyed toddler Ms. Best credits with saving her life, will be at today's ceremony too.

"You go back to school, you stop using drugs, you become a person," says Ms. Best. "A mom."

The school can hold 48 students; there are currently 92 on the waiting list.

The program is a safety net for teens who faced a terrible choice, and its services are in demand.

Last year in Ottawa, 700 girls, aged 12 to 19, were told they were pregnant. Of those, 232 chose to have the child -- a path fraught with rejection, loneliness, ostracism and blunt reality checks.

Besides the regular curriculum, students take courses on budgeting, nutrition and parenting. A co-op program allows them to test-drive careers.

In 18 years, the school, funded by government and private donors, has seen 450 young women go through its doors. Of those, 300 graduated high school and about 130 are financially independent.

"We're going to make a difference in this world, don't kid yourself," says Ms. Best.

For now, she and her daughter will get by on $503.49 a month from social services. This summer, she will volunteer full-time at a homeless shelter, and in the fall she heads to Algonquin to enrol in a social work program.

And her former boyfriend is out of her life.

"It's scary every day, and I don't want to do it every day," says Ms. Best. "But you look into your daughter's eyes and you remember why you're here."

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