In Chelsea, Massachusetts, child poverty rates hover at 30 percent. Only 40 percent of students graduate from high school. The need to connect youth and young adults with support is great. But thanks to a program called Roca, young mothers in Chelsea, Revere and East Boston have a community lifeline that provides the building blocks for generating a better future for themselves and their young children.Roca, which means “rock” in Spanish, developed its Young Mothers Project after witnessing the success of its Intervention Model for high-risk, justice system-involved young men. Roca saw a clear need to assist this growing, and yet underserved, population of young and expecting single mothers who are involved in risky and harmful behaviors. Roca works with these women – most of whom are high school dropouts with little or no employment records – to build the skills they need to become good parents capable of achieving economic stability for themselves and their families over time.
Like many participants, Jennifer Vigil came to Roca with two small children, no high school diploma and no prospects for steady employment. It wasn’t until one youth worker took a special interest in her future that she truly committed to all that Roca had to offer.
“I felt like I was in a dark hole and trapped before I got my GED. All the doors were closed,” Jennifer said. “Once I got my GED, all the doors that were closed before were now open, and I felt like I could do anything I wanted.”
Roca’s model is based in developing transformational relationships by partnering youth workers with young mothers in the program. The intensive model takes participants through three phases of trainings on topics including education, life skills, parenting, financial and employment training, with a long-term retention phase to continue the connection with graduates.
“In our weekly young mothers programming, classes range from GED tutoring in Spanish and English to parenting and life skills classes,” said Rosie Munoz, director of the Young Mothers Project.
Roca also succeeds due to its solid reputation in the community as a safe haven for young mothers to go to and develop personally and professionally. The organization has relationships with the police department, doctors and hospitals to refer young mothers who could benefit from services. Built on a philosophy of “relentless outreach,” Roca’s youth workers identify, locate and keep in touch with young mothers by any means necessary. As a result of their staff’s hard work and continuing community presence, their reach among young mothers continues to expand.
“We go into the communities and pound the pavement to find these women and bring them to our programs. We drive to where they live, their hangout spots, where their friends or families live,” said Rosie.
Roca is unique because they never give up, and they never go away. Although participants sometimes face setbacks that cause them to lose hope and stop attending, Roca never stops trying to connect and provide services, nor do staff members stop providing support once participants have graduated from the model. The retention phase allows for participants to come back should they need help. Through this ongoing system of support and continuity in their lives, these women begin to see that change is possible.
“My relationship with Roca is still there. I go to my youth worker all the time, if I need help with anything, personal or professional, and I know he’ll be there,” said Jennifer.
In 2013, Roca served 106 young mothers ranging from 16 to 25 years old. Today, 74 percent are enrolled or have graduated from the program. Most of the program’s young mothers are enrolled in GED classes, have attained a GED certificate or are enrolled in and attending college.
Of the women who obtained a job, 92 percent retained employment for 120 days, which is the benchmark Roca uses to define successful entry for its participants.
Once started on a path toward self-sufficiency, these mothers are creating a brighter future for themselves and their children, too. They will never have to go through the same hardships they may have experienced during childhood or as young, single mothers.
“We’re taking a two-generation approach to helping families. We believe if the mother is doing well, then the child will do well. And if both are doing well, then the communities do well and flourish,” said Rosie.
Because of the changes Jennifer has made in her life, she envisions a much brighter future for all of her children. She hopes they will one day go to college and be successful. Roca helped her on the path to achieving that goal for her children.
Jennifer said, “Not only did I get a GED, but I got a different personality. I learned how to be a better parent, how to trust people, how to be compassionate, and all this comes back to Roca.”