Never give up, former teen mom urges girls
Michelle Scarlett became pregnant the summer after her grade nine year while she was attending Montego Bay High School in St James.
She was only 14 years old and her father had thrown her out of the house. The Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation (WCJF) would become her oasis during this crisis.
“Somebody told me that there was a centre on Brandon Hill, and I lived in Glendevon. It was really far from me, so I had to walk, but that’s where I went for food for myself and for my child. Without it, I don’t know what I would’ve done.
“My son’s father was a teenager also. He was 16, and so he left school and started working but barely had anything to feed him, me, and the baby,” Scarlett said.
Since its inception in 1978, the WCJF has assisted 46,989 adolescent mothers across its main centres and outreach stations.
“I went there until I had the baby and then I went back to school. They tried to keep up with the programme that we used to do in high school. I didn’t really have anywhere to live because when my father kicked me out, I was living with my son’s father, then I went to my grandmother and she got sick and my aunt said I couldn’t stay there anymore.”
“It was really, really tough,” she said, adding that she often could not afford toiletries.
Scarlett handed over responsibility for her son to an aunt who had family in Kingston in an effort to return to her father’s house and go back to school, but he declined.
The Women’s Centre would again come to her rescue when they found her a home.
“They know a lot of children get thrown out when they become pregnant, and so they would walk around and search for people who want somebody to live with them. I went to live with this woman in Springfield, and she, basically, wanted someone to help her to clean her house and keep her company. I ended up going to Maldon Secondary, and that’s where I finished high school.”
Her caregiver would not give her money but provided meals and shelter.
Scarlett’s book, In Search of Self: A Message of Hope, tells the story of her early abandonment, the factors that led to her becoming pregnant, her journey through motherhood, and the lessons she learnt.
“I made mistakes because of the low self-esteem I had. I turned to boys to ask them for money to buy things that I needed to go back to school,” said Scarlett, now 44.
“The thing that stood out is that I never gave up. I always felt like I needed to go to school no matter what was happening, I was focused on graduating from high school.”
She set her eyes on the prize, and it was achieved as she graduated with five passes in the General Certificate of Education examinations.
Another unplanned pregnancy
Scarlett had her second child when she was 26, and that, too, she said, was unplanned. “I decided that I had to leave the area and find myself. It was about searching for Michelle and loving Michelle,” said a reflective Scarlett.
She subsequently migrated to the United States with her kids and pursued her undergraduate degree. She is now four weeks away from completing her master’s in healthcare administration.
She said it was important for her to return to Jamaica in September to share her book with the young women who currently attend the Montego Bay centre so that they might be inspired by her message of hope.
“I’ve always wanted to give back because that place was really my safe haven. If it wasn’t for them, I’d probably end up pregnant multiple times because I was living with this boy and [a caregiver] advised me not to stay there in that situation.”
Scarlett has reconciled with her father and believes that her life is testament that teenage mothers do not have to be victims of negative stereotypes.
Having paved the way for her career in social work, she has so far fostered five boys and a girl.
“The children that come into my home are troubled children, most of the times. They feel rejected, or their parents are on drugs. It’s strenuous, but when I help them and I see the change, it’s really fulfilling,” the foster parent explained.
On her September visit to the foundation, she made a donation to the Advancing Secondary Tertiary Remedial Education for Adolescent Mothers programme. The fund provides bursaries to adolescent mothers who are reintegrated into the public education system as well as tuition for students who have matriculated to tertiary institutions.