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Finding Support: Group helps young parents learn to cope

TURLOCK — Maria Rolon was 16 when she got pregnant.

Her boyfriend was not around much, and though her mother supported Maria, she said it wasn't going to be easy.

"She said I was going to have to grow up right away, and I did," said Rolon, now 24 and the mother of three.

About a year and a half ago, Rolon found the Turlock Family Network, a nonprofit group that works with teen and young adult parents.

Rolon attended prenatal classes before the birth of son Avian, now 2 months old. And they both go to weekly sessions with Jessica, 6, and Kimberley, 4.

"It gives me time to interact with my kids," said Rolon. And she has learned valuable lessons in patience and stress management.

The Turlock Family Network began 14 years ago as an outgrowth of teen parenting classes offered through local schools. It has two paid staff members and about 17 volunteers. Money comes from donations, the occasional grant and a couple of fund-raisers each year, including this weekend's garden tour.

"Our main focus is to provide parenting classes and prenatal care for teen parents," director Beverly Spielman said. "But we're open to anybody."

The organization aims to reduce domestic violence and child abuse cases by teaching parents coping methods. Referrals come from churches, schools, lawyers, Child Protective Services and probation officers.

"A lot of our girls are in controlling relationships," said Eileen Hamilton, a retired teacher and member of the network's board of directors. And if their home life is already difficult, a teen pregnancy only adds to the stress.

The network offers mentoring, special workshops and home visits in addition to the weekly parenting sessions.

Each session begins with a welcoming song and then a craft the parents create with their children. Volunteers then take the children into an adjoining room for more games and songs, while the parents stay for discussions on everything from discipline to nutrition.

In recent years, the classes have expanded to include fathers, as well.

"A lot of times, the couples don't stay together, but this way they can continue to co-parent their child," Spielman said.

She told of two 16-year-olds who were no longer in a relationship, but came to prenatal classes — along with both their mothers. The baby was born a few months ago.

"They've had their bumps, but they're doing well," Spielman said.

Calls from fathers have increased as the economy has soured, putting more of them out of work.

"We have had a lot of calls from new stay-at-home dads," Spielman said. "They're used to being the provider, and now they're caring for the kids. Their stress level has more than tripled."

Staff and volunteers work with the parents and keep tabs on their progress.

Hamilton and Spielman cite success stories that include clients who have returned to school and entered careers.

"Some of them actually work for the school district," said Hamilton, who also serves on the Turlock Unified School District board.

Rolon hopes to be one of those success stories. After a tumultuous few years, she has been with her current boyfriend for three years. They tried to have a baby for a year, then succeeded when they stopped trying.

Rolon said her boyfriend has been very supportive, taking over the role of dad to her daughters and taking the night shift with the newborn. Still, it's not easy being a young mother of three.

"My friends are going out every night, having fun, while I'm raising babies," she said, looking over her brood. "But I wouldn't trade it for all the nights out in the world."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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