The rules were simple in Lorna Little's home in the early 1980s; she grew up the only child of Jamaican immigrants in North Hartford.
Her studies came first. And - actually this was Rule 1 - no talking to boys on the phone. So, you could just imagine the anxiety Little, then 17 and an above average student, had in telling her mom about her little predicament.
"I was terrified, nervous, to have to tell these strict people who didn't even want me on the phone with a boy - that I was pregnant," said Little, now 40. "I made sure I was in a public place, just in case. ... She was very disappointed."
So were Little's teachers at Hartford Public High School. Little overheard one saying derisively: "I always thought she was so smart."
"And I remember turning to her," Little said, "and saying, `I am.'"
Little was determined not to have her teen pregnancy derail her plans for an education and a good future. She was insistent on not becoming a "negative statistic" and eschewed state assistance. Luckily, there was a trusted friend who provided cut-rate day care.
Little's "whatever it takes" attitude had her juggling the rigors of motherhood with academia. She almost wore herself out. "I've got a book here; I've got a baby here crying and I'm trying to stay up all night studying for exams," she said. "People thought my child was not going to be doing well, and that I was going to be this or going to be that."
Little Alicia, now 22, turned out OK. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Rutgers. She is now in London, with her Air Force veteran husband, working on her master's degree. Mom made out pretty well too. She married Alicia's father, Alonzo Little, in 1987. Several years later, she earned her master's degree in social work from Springfield College.
For the last four years, Little has been the executive director of a venerable West Hartford group home for teenage mothers, St. Agnes Home Inc. Talk about having the right person in the right place.
Eight months ago, Little hired Shari L. Smith to be her program director. Smith, 42, was also a Hartford teenage mother who refused to succumb to conventional notions. She is weeks away from earning her master's degree in public health from the University of Connecticut.
Yes - I know you're wondering - having two former teenage mothers running a group home for teen mothers is a little unusual. That both have earned advanced academic degrees is highly unusual. And that neither makes a point to push their personal stories on the 12 young mothers they supervise is fascinating.
None of the three young moms I talked to at the home, which once was a convent and is now a referral choice of the state Department of Children and Families, knew that the women who are sticklers about curfews, chores, no cursing and no tattoos, were once as vulnerable as they were.
"I'm proud of them," said Damary Maldonado, 18, who is at St. Agnes with her 3-year-old daughter. "They were young too and they did it, so I can do it too." That's the daily message of St. Agnes - get your education; don't give up.
"I can relate to most of the things they're experiencing," Smith said. "We try to help them realize that you can achieve whatever goal you want if you're willing to work for it. And that it's not going to be easy." Crystalee Dominguez, 18, plans to go to college and become a registered nurse so she can provide for her 2-year-old daughter. Sounds like a five-year plan, I told her.
"As long as it takes," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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