How a Teen Parent Program Is Helping One Mom Follow Her Dreams While Raising Her Son: 'I Feel Like I'm Not Alone'
Every day, Amaria Dowdell wakes up around 4:30 a.m. to pack her son Atreus' bags with bottles, toys, and clothes. By 6:20 a.m. at the latest, she has to be out the door to get to school at Ridge Technical College, a Polk County public school in Winter Haven, Florida. Dowdell, 17, is a student in the teen parent program, which aims to provide participating students with educational and ancillary services to facilitate the completion of high school.
"It allows me to bring Atreus to school with me every day and also bring him to child care so I know he's safe, and I can come and check on him anytime I want," explains Dowdell.
It was back in September 2020 that she found out she was expecting. "I thought it was the worst day of my life," admits the young mom. "I took over three pregnancy tests, and I was like, 'They're not right.' I was just very scared. I was heartbroken."
Dowdell initially decided not to break the news to her mother, but she did tell a cousin. "She ended up telling her mom, which led to her mom calling my mom and telling my mom," recalls the teen. "I didn't even get the chance to tell my mom that I was pregnant."
When she was just five months pregnant, Dowdell went into active labor twice and again when she was six months. She ended up being induced early on April 26, 2021. Atreus was born weighing 5 pounds, 3 ounces.
Shortly after, Dowdell learned about the program at Ridge Technical College from a friend who was already a student there. "I told my mom," she notes. "She was still mad, but she was like, 'At least you're still trying to go to school.'"
The two connected with Latonnja Key, senior coordinator of the school's teen parent program, and a week later, Dowdell began attending classes. At the time, Atreus was 3 months old.
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In retrospect, Dowdell is thrilled she enrolled. "I love it—this school is everything," says the new mom. "I have a lot of opportunities. The support system is very good here. I feel like I'm not alone. At regular high school, they talk about you, and everything is very judgmental. But here, they understand."
Not only is she staying on track with regular academics, but the program offers a parenting class that both students and their babies attend. "The class is very open; you can talk, you can get a lot of things off your chest," notes Dowdell. "We learn a lot about the babies—how to care for them. We'll learn breastfeeding techniques, how to hold a baby, how to care for a baby when he or she is sick."
Career classes give students a sneak peek at a potential professional path. By taking an administrative office class, Dowdell says she's been able to consider whether or not she wants to pursue administrative assistant work.
And overall, being at school offers Dowdell the time and space she needs to study. She explains, "I don't have to hear screaming and have to play and have to actually focus on him, and I can just get everything I have to get done."
How the Teen Parent Program Is Making a Difference
"The program was designed for pregnant and parenting teens to graduate high school," explains Key, who notes that the district started out with two teen parent program locations and has since expanded to six.
And when a young parent starts classes, they have an intake meeting in which they talk to Key as well as the school counselor, administrator, school nurse, and social worker. "We sit down as a team to take a look at everything and make sure that we can meet the needs of that student," says Key.
She continues, "Most of the girls face challenges at home. Coming to school is more of a safe haven for them. We have girls who are homeless. We have girls who [once their parents] find out they're pregnant, they don't want to have anything to do with them. The biggest challenge is the young ladies trying to balance all of that."
But through the teen parent program and its resources available to them, teen parents can be successful, says Key.
And those in search of a role model can look up to Dowdell who Key describes as "polite, smart, and a leader on our campus" and "a prime example of what you look for in a teen parent."
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A Bright Future
Once Dowdell turns her tassel, she hopes to build a career dedicated to supporting other mothers and their kids. "I might want to open a pediatric business, so I can help babies," she says. "I love having Atreus, so I want to be around a lot of other babies."
Key, who has watched Atreus' mom grow, has faith Dowdell will make her dreams a reality.
"Being a young mom, trying to juggle school, work, and a lot of things going on at home, Amaria continues to have patience, and I think that's important," notes Key. "I truly believe that Amaria will graduate high school. She will be successful."