Some young women in the Eastern Panhandle have found second families made of peers and adult mentors who are guiding them through the maze of motherhood.
On the first and third Thursdays of every month during the school year, women ages 15 to 21 gather at Rosemont Grace Brethren Church in Martinsburg to chat, learn parenting and life skills, and grow their faith in God. They come with children in tow to share a meal, then the little ones are put in the care of volunteer baby-sitters in another part of the building so the women can have some enriching time with their peers.
At the helm of the meetings is Jill Bevins, area director of Eastern Panhandle Young Lives, who said the group averages 20 young women at each of its gatherings, but boasts about 45 total members. She knows from experience the positive power a support network can have on a teen mother.
Bevins was 17 when she became pregnant with her son, Brandon, who is now 16. She and her husband, Thomas Bevins, also have 11-year-old twin daughters, Alaina and Alexis. She considers herself lucky to have had support from her parents and those of her husband, who was her boyfriend when she became a mother.
"I couldn't have done it" without that parental support, said Jill Bevins, 35.
She said being a teen mom "was really scary."
Not every young mother has that kind of help.
Bevins said less than 20 percent of the fathers of the babies and young children of the club's members are involved in their lives. After the children mark their first birthdays, that involvement diminishes even more, she said.
On the positive side, Bevins estimated 80 to 85 percent of the group's members have help from a parent. However, a lot of them don't have fathers in their lives, and many grew up on welfare or are children of women who birthed them as teens.
"The pattern will continue unless we give them hope," Bevins said.
Members must enter the club before they turn 20, but there is no minimum age requirement, Bevins said. They can stay in the program until they're 22, as long as they are continuing their schooling or working if they have completed some form of education. Members also have to show that they're making good parenting choices and must attend a church as a means of nurturing a relationship with God, she said.
Those who have leadership potential can stay past the age of 22 if they become junior leaders, Bevins said.
Aside from conducting the meetings, Young Lives leaders go into Berkeley County's three high schools and any middle schools — which are attended by teen mothers or mothers-to-be — to offer support, Bevins said. A Jefferson County, W.Va., branch started in September, but there is no group in Morgan County, W.Va., she said.
Meet the moms
Erica Montoya, 17, of Hedgesville, W.Va., was the first member of Eastern Panhandle Young Lives.
She has a 17-month-old daughter, Meya, and is attending beauty school, which she hopes to complete in October 2012.
Montoya said she was interested in "getting to meet people who were in my same situation." She said she has learned that "with God, anything's possible."
She has enjoyed the program from the start, but now that it has grown, "it is way more amazing," Montoya said. "I feel like it's my second family."
Victoria Gerhard, 17, of Martinsburg, was pregnant when she joined the program two years ago.
The mother of 10-month-old Estrella has a goal of finishing high school and going to nursing school, ultimately becoming a neonatologist.
Gerhard said her mentor is "great" and that the other Young Lives members are "like my second family. This is my support system."
Julia Gamber, 19, of Martinsburg, has a daughter, Victoria, 3, and is seven months pregnant. She has a job, her own home and pays her own bills. She has support from her family, her boyfriend and his family, and she cherishes the bonds she's made through Young Lives.
"These are really the only ones I hang out with now," Gamber said, adding that trying to maintain the friendships she had before becoming a mother was too difficult.
Mentors spend an average of three hours a week with their young charges, Bevins said. She encourages them to incorporate the girls into their lives and to meet at least once a month outside of club meetings.
"I'm not mentor material," Janell Joseph recalled thinking when she was asked to get involved with Young Lives. But she said sometimes God calls people to step out of their comfort zones, and she's glad she did.
Joseph, 42, of Martinsburg, was not a teen mother and therefore, "I don't know what they're going through."
Not only has she been a mentor, but she helps organize the meals for the club meetings.
She said she often reminds the girls, "God and us love them, no matter what."
Diana Gunia, 47, of Martinsburg, used to run the Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) KOA campground with her husband, and enjoyed their teen employees.
"I missed having a whole set of kids to mother," said Gunia, who is now a mentor.
As she has gotten to know some of the members, she said, "I could see that they were excited about making a change in their lives."
if you go ...
What: Eastern Panhandle Young Lives
When: First and third Thursdays of each month during the school year from 6 to 8:30 p.m. During the summer, the group meets once a month, but dates and times vary.
Where: Rosemont Grace Brethren Church, at the corner of Illinois Avenue and King Street in Martinsburg.
Contact: Area Director Jill Bevins at 304-919-1681 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for something to do this weekend? Find what you need in our Weekend Entertainment Guide newsletter.