Just 18, pregnant with her second child and facing a custody battle, Leilani Morris found refuge and support in the Titiro Whakamua Teen Parents School in Upper Hutt.
That was 10 years ago and these days, her children older, Leilani helps out with the mothers and babies in the school while studying for her psychology degree.
The school held an open day on March 8, International Women’s Day, to celebrate where it has come in its 12 or so years, to thank the community for its support and to remember that women in other parts of the world are not so lucky.
The school is fully funded by the Ministry of Education under the auspices of its neighbour, Heretaunga College. The licensed Early Childhood Education Centre is funded by the Ministry of Education and Work and Income providing sufficient money to transport the mothers and babies each day.
The school began humbly in a dark and cold hall in Upper Hutt as a coffee meeting and play group but was able to amass enough funds with community help to build a facility that would incorporate light and airy rooms for the babies with an outdoor area and sandpit for the older children, several sleeping areas and a well-appointed kitchen and dining area with high chairs fixed around the walls. Adjoining this area for the children are two classrooms where the mothers study and take classes. Many study by correspondence which gives them a chance to attend to their children’s immediate needs and celebrate milestones and to lunch with them.
Leilani says there is huge value in having the other mothers there.
When she was going through the custody battle, the court was keen that she build up a support network which the teen parents’ school provided.
A short pregnancy and early childcare course gave her the basics – some girls have no idea – and the friendships were important.
‘In the hard times, having this place to come to with its structure and routine was vital. I had things to do and somewhere to be – a reason to get up in the morning.
‘Had I not had that, I wouldn’t like to think how I may have handled the post-natal depression.’
Leilani, who has been treated for depression since she was 14, was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the first year of her son’s life.
Leilani is studying for a Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree in communications and psychology.
‘I really want to work with the mums. I think maybe the voice of experience could be the voice of reason sometimes.
The teen parent school presently has girls from 15 to 19 but in recent years, there have been several 14-year-olds.
‘I’m working on the theory that between the ages of 19 and 26, a young woman will find her place and I can’t help but think what happens if, before you’re even 19, you’ve been given your role – you’re a mother and that’s first and foremost. How does that affect the rest of your development?
‘If I can communicate my experience in their language using their words and jargon, I can help.’
The school has just started a mentor programme and Leilani would like to see funding from the Ministry of Social Development (as well as the funding already in place from Education) so the school could attract girls who are less academically inclined but would benefit from classes in sewing and cooking and contact with other mothers.
The Catholic Women’s League in Upper Hutt has been a key support for Titiro Whakamua.
From the start League members have paid the school fortnightly visits bringing bread, soup and fruit. Mary Richardson said it was good to be there to discuss the word ‘Catholic’ while sharing recipes.
‘We felt when they were down at the hall that they just needed support so we started knitting clothing and rugs for the babies.’
When the school moved to the new building 10 years ago the League gave money to set up a library.