Home life was not as idyllic as it seemed. Her parents fought constantly and home was filled with tension and anxiety. Lewis used school, church and other extracurricular activities to escape from the emptiness and pain of her home life. She knew RaKeim was wrong for her, but his charm, dreadlocks and fast-lane life of money, cars and stylish clothes, bought from his drug deals, were hypnotic. She could talk with him. He understood her and shared her loneliness.
When Lewis tested positive for pregnancy just before her high school graduation in Virginia Beach, Virgina, in 1998, her friends, teachers and mother told her that college was no longer a reality. Her father wouldn’t look her in the eye. Lewis packed her bags, and she and RaKeim took off.
They spent the next year homeless, living from couch to car to the apartment floors of RaKeim’s drug clients. She was often alone while RaKeim dealt or cheated with other women. Still, living with RaKeim was a better option for Lewis than living with her parents.
Finally, after her baby was born, Lewis moved back home, reconciled with her parents and the painful, truthful talks began. She enrolled in the College of William and Mary as a full-time freshman in 1999, the only coed caring for a baby while attending class. Lewis lived on campus with her daughter, supporting herself with loans and grants. Four years later she graduated with high honors with a degree in English.
Lewis was hired into a public relations job upon college graduation and found an apartment in a good school district. “Earning my college degree changed everything for my daughter and me,” she said. But as with many pregnant teens, Lewis’ support system of family and friends had vanished during her pregnancy. She founded Generation Hope to give teen parents the support they need to complete college and beyond. “What’s important is someone saying, ‘I believe in you,’” she said. “Teen parents don’t hear that a lot.”
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies, less than two percent of teens who have a baby before age 18 attain a college degree by age 30. “That’s a really, really dismal number,” Lewis said. “Our question is what happens to the other 98 percent? I started Generation Hope to change the statistics for pregnant teens and to encourage other teen parents to fulfill their dreams.” It also helps break the cycle of poverty. “When we support young parents, our whole community will benefit.”
Lewis is clear that her organization’s mission is to support, not celebrate, teenage pregnancy and parenthood. She remembers all too well the homelessness, hunger, poverty and drug-infested environment. “There’s nothing glamorous about it,” she recalled. Generation Hope partners with DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and other nonprofits focused on teen pregnancy prevention. “I’d love to be out of business,” she quipped.
Incorporated in November 2010, Generation Hope offers financial assistance, mentoring and training to qualified pregnant teens and teen parents.
Generation Hope is currently recruiting scholars and sponsors and reviewing applications for its first year Scholar Program. They hope to award scholarships and mentors to ten applicants from the District of Columbia, Maryland and northern Virginia. While they have formally partnered with eight local colleges and universities, they will work with any school’s financial aid office.
The requirements of the scholarship recipients are rigorous. They must actively parent their child, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, keep in continual contact with their mentors and attend training.
Generation Hope’s biggest obstacle, Lewis said, is the stigma often associated with teen parents. “People are often surprised to find out that I was a teenage mother,” she said. Through Generation Hope she hopes people will realize that these teens have the potential and capabilities to do great things, and ultimately the stigma will fade.
Now a married mother of two with a master’s degree in Social Policy and Communication, Lewis and her husband are also focused on raising two daughters in a home filled with love and safe and open communication.
Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow Get Out and Give Back on Facebook, Twitter and her website.