By Helen Mitternight
It used to be that a young woman who “got in trouble” was whisked away only to reappear months later with no mention of a baby. Unwed pregnancy was shameful and the pregnant young women were hidden in a home somewhere.
Much of the stigma is gone these days, but life for a young pregnant woman is still difficult.
“While the stigma overall is gone, it’s still very difficult for a 15- or 16-year-old girl to go to school pregnant and deal with the additional needs like prenatal appointments,” says Amber McCormick, director of development for Florence Crittenton Programs, a nonprofit residential program in downtown Charleston.
“They do get bullied. They get teased, and that’s in a best-case scenario. Often they don’t finish high school and get stuck in a life of poverty and hardship.”
It’s been helping young women since 1897 and has evolved as societal attitudes have, but there still is a need for a place for pregnant teens to go. For many of them, they are ironically both too young and too old: too young to responsibly care for a baby and too old to qualify for services that would take them into custody away from abusive home situations.
“For almost 85 percent of our clients, they have a background of abuse or neglect,” Amber says. “They have traumatic home lives; their parents have kicked them out. Every week, we get calls from young women who are literally homeless. They’re sleeping in tents, in cars or they’re couch-surfing at friends’. It’s not a good place for a pregnant young woman to be.”
Although Florence Crittenton is in Charleston, it provides services to young women statewide. Some young women choose to give their babies up for adoption; some try to figure out how to live life as a new mother. Amber says Florence Crittenton doesn’t push one choice over another but helps them with whichever choice they make. Residential services are offered from prenatal to six months after the women give birth. That includes helping the women finish their education, offering counseling and prenatal services, and teaching life skills. The Family Development program helps tricounty moms with safe housing, parenting and job support.
Although the number of pregnant teens has dropped – Amber says the state saw around 3,700 in 2016, down from a high of 10,000 – there is still more need than Florence Crittenton can answer.
“In the tricounty area, we have about 335 young women who become pregnant a year,” she says. “Our program has room for 16 young women at a time and up to four infants. We have about 75 to 100 young women a year in our residential program. In the community-based program, where they live on their own, we support about 40 a year.”
Not every girl whom Florence Crittenton helps is pregnant.
“We also help ‘system-involved’ girls from DSS (S.C. Department of Social Services),” Amber says. “This is their home and we can help them continue on with school and give them the counseling and services they need.”
The assistance might seem priceless for a struggling young woman, but it is donations and grants that sustain the programs. Of note, State Secretary Mark Hammond named Florence Crittenton a 2018 charitable “Angel,” meaning a nonprofit donates at least 80 percent – in this case, 89 percent – of its spending to charitable programs.
“We’re supported 60 percent by private donations and 40 percent is government grants and funding,” Amber says. “A couple of years ago, DSS cut our funding, and for a couple of months, we could not accept pregnant young women. It was a really difficult time. Fortunately, we’re a line item in the budget again, but it gets threatened every year and we rely heavily on donations and the fundraisers keep our doors open.”
One such fundraiser is the annual Wine, Women & Shoes event, being held Feb. 21 this year. Amber says the event features tastings of local and national wines, a fashion show with women from the community and a “Best in Shoe” contest, as well as sales by local vendors such as Brackish Bowties, Shoes on King and Tres Carmen, which donate a portion of sales to the nonprofit.
“It’s really interactive and fun,” Amber says.
But behind the fun is family.
For Amber, her eight years at Florence Crittenton have been about the power of family, whether it’s one someone has been born into, or not.
“It all comes down to love and support and hope,” Amber says. “We’re giving that young woman a second chance in whatever way that looks like. Some of these women have never had a sense of family. We’re showing them what it is supposed to feel like on holidays, that it is OK to love yourself and set goals. A lot of these young women have never felt that. It’s powerful. Every young lady who leaves here with a newborn is empowered with what she needs to succeed and the tools to make good choices going forward.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Attend the Wine, Women & Shoes Fundraiser 6 to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Hotel Bennett
- Organize clothing donations and baby gear
- Answer calls
- Greet visitors
- Offer lessons to the residents
- Do maintenance such as cleaning or painting
Donate: Donations of money or gently-used clothing are accepted. Immediate needs are paying for a cap and gown for two young women graduating from high school and a transport vehicle for taking the young women to medical appointments or school.
For more information, visit FlorenceCrittentonsc.org.