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It’s hard for Cristian Morales to recognize his former self.
The 19-year-old grew up on the streets of Lynn and once belonged to a gang. But roughly three years ago, Morales became a father, and his entire life changed.
“My daughter is my world,” said Morales, a single dad who lives in Malden with his mother and 2-year-old daughter, Jade.
The young father, who dropped out of high school in 2009, works in retail and is studying for his GED. He credits Jade for turning his life around. The moment he received custody, he decided to take responsibility for her life and his own, he said.
“I wanted to be there for her,” Morales said. “The biggest challenge at the beginning was not having motherly instincts. But I’ve changed a lot. I still have struggles today, but I became a better person.”
Morales knows he is not alone in his struggles.
Each year, more than 500 teens give birth in Boston. They face a higher risk of poverty, community violence, poor school performance, substandard housing and other poor health outcomes. But many of these young parents want more for their families and themselves.
On June 27, nearly 100 young parents participated in the second annual Summit for Teen Empowerment, Progress, and Parenting Success (STEPPS), held at Northeastern University. Organized by BWH’s Center for Community Health and Health Equity (CCHHE), the summit brings young families and community agencies together to provide a safe forum for parenting teens to expand their knowledge and access resources to help them achieve their goals.
“The summit is part of our Birth Equity Initiative, which focuses on improving birth outcomes for Boston-area groups experiencing disparities, ” said Wanda McClain, executive director of the CCHHE. “Part of our strategy is working with populations who are the most affected, including young parents. We are trying to start early by providing resources and information to pregnant and young parents. While STEPPS focuses on helping to empower teen parents, the CCHHE also has a number of programs that promote positive youth development, which has been linked to preventing teen pregnancy.”
Morales first heard about STEPPS while attending a GED class. After learning more about the summit, he decided to become one of 10 young parent ambassadors, whom he describes as “leaders who speak up against stereotypes about young parents.” Ambassadors receive training about leadership, advocacy and public health. They also help to share information and resources through social media.
“We really want to connect with young parents,” said Maisha Douyon Cover, manager of Family and Community Health for the CCHHE. “We used our website this year to solicit their ideas for workshops and recruit ambassadors. The site is not only a resource but a place for young parents to connect with one another, post their own stories and blog about their experiences.”
The ambassadors are visible, energetic leaders at the summit.
“I became an ambassador because I wanted to meet people who could relate to my struggles,” said Morales. “The stereotype of young parents is that they can’t get far. But I know many people who have gone so far.”
This year’s summit included keynote addresses by young parents, as well as workshops covering stress and money management, career coaching, co-parenting and healthy relationships. City and local public and private agencies, including the Boston Public Health Commission, also participated.
Though the summit is held once a year, its impact continues to grow.
“We foresee this being one of a number of events in the future,” Douyon Cover said. “As part of the Birth Equity Initiative, we’re developing a comprehensive program to be able to work with young parents and have them engage with other young parents.”
Morales praises STEPPS for building a community of young parents.
“When I was starting out as a father, I was so depressed,” he said. “I met others in the same position through STEPPS, and everything changed. We talk about problems. We help each other out.”
Morales has one last test to complete his GED program. He plans to continue as an ambassador and hopes to help other young parents as an outreach worker.
“I see people here going to college and getting degrees, and they have it harder than I do,” Morales said. “They are on their own; I have help from my mom. It is a very big inspiration.”
To learn more about the CCHHE’s work with young parents, visit www.steppsboston.org or facebook.com/proudtoparent