Poor Teen Mothers
By Sean P. Carr
PHILADELPHIA -- Fourteen, pregnant and poor, Kim Scott could literally feel her childhood disappear into motherhood. She wasn't scared, she said, but she was overwhelmed.
Although she had support from some family members and a boyfriend who was willing to take responsibility for the child, Scott had a huge need for guidance. "I really didn't worry," she said. "I just didn't want to believe it."
Like nearly 3,200 other women in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods last year, Scott found help in the shape of a yellow van with purple lettering reading, "Pregnant? We can help."
The van is a MOMobile, part of the whimsically named project of the same name created by the nonprofit Maternity Care Coalition. As they try to improve the health of mothers and children in poor, high-risk communities, the MOMobiles enter neighborhoods where even ice-cream vans are a rare sight.
In 1989, the program had one van serving one neighborhood. Now, six vans provide nine communities with at-home attention for women in need.
The MOMobile program is based on the belief that community-based, pro-active care is most effective in maintaining the health of a mother and child. Counselors, known as MOMobile maternity care advocates, are drawn from the communities they serve.
Martha McDonald, the coalition's director of development, says that by knowing the community from personal experience, advocates can provide referrals to doctors and counselors and connect mothers to stores linked to the Women, Infants and Children relief program.
Advocates stay with their clients through pregnancy until the child is 3. Such long-lasting attention helps to ensure a healthy start for mother and child and builds a foundation of trust between the advocates and the women they serve, said outreach worker Glenda Gray. "The MOMobile develops a relationship," she said.
"It's carried over into the community," said Michelle Allen, a certified social worker with the Germantown Hospital and Medical Center MOMobile office. "We run into them (the women) at the grocery store and when we're out shopping. We're closer to them that way."
As dramatic changes in the welfare system that supports many of the urban poor have left clients feeling worried and adrift, such services are needed more than ever, say MOMobile advocates. "People need to do as much as they can for themselves," Allen said.
On a recent afternoon drive, the brightly painted MOMobile cut a swath through the gritty, working-class neighborhood of Germantown, where blocks of boarded-up residences alternate with streets of well-kept row houses. "It's not very hard to find in traffic," noted McDonald of her vehicle's appearance.
Like a military patrol readying for a mission, the advocates stock their MOMobiles with necessities like packets of health and baby supplies, bags of gifts and goodies for clients, and reams of brochures and HIV/AIDS-education pamphlets.
The van's friendly exterior, complete with painted-on eyelashes accentuating the lettering , is no accident but rather the result of market research, McDonald said. "It looks official enough to be trusted, but it's also kind of friendly and cute," she said.
Sometimes women just walk up to the van, whether out of need or just curiosity. Advocates always have a phone on hand to make on-the-spot appointments with doctors or social service agencies.
On this afternoon, the MOMobile crew visited Kim Scott, now 15, and her one-week-old daughter, Konia, at the small house she shares with her sister and a handful of family members, including three other young children. The house is kept tidy, but signs of the family's straits show through in the stained ceilings and cracked walls.
While cooing over the newborn, advocate Rorng Sorn, a certified nurse in Thailand who joined the MOMobile program last year, checked on Scott's progress, leading her through a veritable "to do" list of doctors' appointments, applications for welfare benefits and arrangements for day care. "What is your actual plan?" she pressed.
"I want to go back to school and take it from there. At least graduate high school," Scott said, cradling her newborn. "I just want to get a better education now."
Still overwhelmed with her new motherhood, Scott conceded she had no real interests or ideas on what to do with her life. But she asked the advocates many questions about how to take care of herself and her baby and expressed strong interest in learning about a school-based child care program.
"Just because you have a kid doesn't mean your life has come to an end," Sorn told her. Later, Scott said her pregnancy never made her feel older than her years. "I still felt young," she said, then sighed. "Now I feel old."
Scott says she understands that she made a mistake in getting pregnant so young. But Sorn and the other advocates say their job is to offer assistance and education, not judgment. "She's actually a lot better off than most (clients), because she has strong family support," McDonald said.
This spring, the MOMobile will undertake its most ambitious journey yet, launching a satellite operation in the neighboring borough of Norristown (pop. 30,749) nestled in affluent Montgomery County.
Why is this program for urban mothers and their children headed to suburbia? Whereas Philadelphia's infant mortality rate is on the decline, in Norristown it is actually increasing, said McDonald. It is a trend health advocates fear is growing in other small suburban communities.
"It's a real pocket of poverty amid relative wealth, so there aren't many services available," McDonald said.
Posted: March 3, 1998