As teenage pregnancy rates plummet across the country, Grand Traverse County is struggling to bring them down. A new program in Traverse City may help; it is restructured and expanded to include dads.
Austin Duff is 15 years old and his son is about to turn one year old. Duff’s girlfriend got pregnant by accident.
“When I found out, I didn’t know what to do or say,” Duff says. “I didn’t panic. I did not question it. I just did it. Sometimes I still can’t seem to realize with this.
Even though Duff hadn’t planned on being a father so young, he’s happy. He says he felt his fatherly instincts kick in early.
“When he went to be circumcised and I heard him cry and scream, I kind of felt a lot of rage. Like my blood was hot because I heard him cry and scream in pain, ”he says.
Duff lives with his girlfriend’s family in Buckley. There are nine in the house at the moment. The rooms are crowded so he sleeps in the basement. It is very cold there, but he says everything is fine once the heater kicks on.
Duff says the family went through tough times, like when his girlfriend’s federal aid expired and they lost hundreds of dollars on groceries. But he says they did it with the help of a local pantry.
“Usually I take a gym bag to fill it up for a week or two,” Duff explains. “They will give me diapers and I will choose the food I need for the house, like cereals, milk, eggs, canned food.
This pantry is run by “Generations Ahead”, a parenting education program for teenagers at Traverse City High School where Duff attends school. For decades, a similar program was run by the Women’s Resource Center and served five counties. But last fall he focused on Grand Traverse County and opened up to dads.
Generations Ahead director Marjie Rich says unintentional pregnancies are common in rural areas. She says teens with transportation issues, such as not having a license or a working car, are more likely to give up birth control.
“If you ask them what happened, they’ll tell you my pills are used up.” I needed to get them re-prescribed, ”says Rich.
She says providing simple goods can make a huge difference for struggling parents and help them stay in school.
“They are so bogged down in sustaining their daily lives that they have little opportunity or time in their lives to think about the next step,” says Rich. “What am I motivated to do? What would kind of be my ideal job?”
This was the case for Austin Duff. He explored different career options and limited himself to one.
“And then I started to get into welding, because it’s an art form and it really brings in a lot of money,” says Duff. “I went to the Career Tech Center and studied what they do and how it all works. ”
In the middle of the afternoon at Duff’s, the parents of his son and his girlfriends are sleeping. His parents work nights so they can babysit while Duff and his girlfriend are at school.
He says they helped him bond with his son, Brandon.
“He wanted to stand up, he wanted to be held, and every time I sat down he would scream. And his dad walks through the door… and says to get up with him, turn on some music and sing for him, ”Duff says. “I did and he fell asleep almost instantly and it was the best feeling I’ve had. never had.”
Generations Ahead is the only program in rural Michigan that offers intensive practical support to teen parents. There is a smaller program at Elk Rapids and some resources are provided by the state.
If they get the funding, Generations Ahead could expand to other neighboring counties, like Lake and Missauke, where birth rates are almost double the state average.