Written by CultureMASH Staff: Shana Douglas, Natasha Baker, Valerie Beerbower
CultureMASH, an organization launched late last year is a group of young professionals in the Dayton region who have united to use their professional talents and expertise to give something back to the community. They set out on this mission after seeing the astounding impact social media can have in creating awareness and building community. Though technical aspects apply when building a campaign driven for results, the basic fundamentals of branding still apply. The success of any mission relies on awareness and the key factor in enhancing that awareness is reaching your audience through all mediums as well as connecting people emotionally to the cause.
In only a few months, the vision of Shana Douglas and Carla Weis Hale has rapidly unfolded through a multitude of projects including The Mustard Seed Home, the groups first official pro bono marketing campaign. Earlier this year, the CultureMASH team uncovered some alarming and disheartening statistics about teenage pregnancy, generational cycles and economic distress directly related to young mothers both regionally and nationwide. In working with The Mustard Seed Home and seeing the impact this home could have, the team decided the only way, the best way to capture the remarkable work being done to empower young women and stop the cycle was to film a mini documentary. Filming of this production is made possible thanks to the talents of CultureMASH staff members, Sean Coffman, Cindy DeVelvis, Melissa Cales, Valerie Beerbower and Executive Producers Shana Douglas and Carla Weis Hale.
The Mustard Seed Home
Every day, social services help thousands of Dayton-area individuals seeking assistance to feed their families, make ends meet, or shelter themselves from the cold. But not everyone gets the help they need.
While thousands of people are getting assistance, teenage mothers are falling through societal cracks. Too young to be adults, too old to be children, these young women have been stranded by social workers whose hands have been bound by bureaucracy. Their options are grim–homelessness, hunger, a life of uncertainly for themselves and their babies. Often, these unskilled, high-school drop-outs turn to unseemly sources of income–crime, drugs, prostitution.
For children raised in such an environment, this lifestyle is the norm. Those children then grow up to become participants in this terrible cycle, another generation of youth quitting school too early, becoming parents too early, and losing hope too early. But there is a way out of this cycle.
The Mustard Seed Foundation, Inc. (TMSF), a nonprofit organization founded in 2007, is on a mission to fill those societal gaps through which these young women fall. The organization, created by Shondale Atkinson, empowers teen mothers and their children to achieve their highest potential. “The main goal of TMSF is to provide young women ages 13-21 with transitional housing and supportive services,” Atkinson explains.
TMSF accepts teen mothers who are in state or county custody or have been referred by other service agencies, and the need in this county is critical. In Montgomery County, teen pregnancy and child abuse and neglect among teens living below the poverty level continues to be an unchanging issue.
The area needs programs that offer teen mothers an opportunity to rebuild their lives. “We are the only residential parent facility in the state of Ohio,” Atkinson says. “Right after we became licensed, we had 33 referrals come through our doors. My goal is to empower young parents to take control over their lives and the lives of their child.”
A Personal Connection
Atkinson knows what it’s like to feel as if the rest of the world has turned its back on you. A child to a young mother and product of social services, she eventually became a teen mom herself.
“I was born into foster care. My mother had four other children removed by social services already. My siblings and I were constantly shuffled around between foster homes and the care of my mother, who would get clean from time to time and petition to reunite with her children. Even if we were in a good foster home that was stable, we had to leave when our mother wanted to have us home.”
Eventually, Atkinson’s mother would relapse, and she and her siblings would be put back into foster care. “The social worker was more of an advocate for my mother than for us kids. I didn’t have an advocate. I didn’t have someone to show me what my options were and help me make the best choice for me, and that’s got to change,” Atkinson says. She later became pregnant when she was 17 and, without a stable home or alternative housing options, she was separated from her child in the foster care system.
Meeting the Need
Atkinson knew that in order to make a positive change in the lives of these young urban women, she needed to take action. “Children who grow up in the system do the best they can; you just grow up,” she says. “My siblings and I were eligible for a lot of services that we simply didn’t know about. That’s one of the main reasons why I founded TMSF. I never realized I had a say in what kind of home my child could be placed. We want to educate these young parents on their options.”
Services offered through TMSF are necessary to supplement the social services gaps for these young mothers. “If young lady is homeless and a mother at age 13, she cannot go to St. Vincent, she cannot go to the YWCA because she will be separated from her baby.” Atkinson explains. “These girls are too young to access adult services, but too old to take advantage of children’s services.”
TMSF fills that gap by preventing homelessness among teenage mothers, preventing repeat pregnancies and completing education goals, whether that’s obtaining a high school diploma or going on to post-secondary education.
Often, young mothers who want to keep their children and raise them in a safe and loving home are thwarted by barriers and obstacles. The cost of childcare makes it virtually impossible for uneducated mother with no family support to complete her education or hold down a job. “Our main goal is to break the cycle of poverty for this generation. Everything that teenage mother needs is right under TMSF roof,” Atkinson says.
Residents of TMSF receive opportunities they might not have had through social services–and definitely wouldn’t enjoy living on the streets.
- Parenting classes
- Life skills coaching
- Educational advancement
- Food and baby supplies
TMSF also strives to bring a sense of community and support among its residents. “They bond and gain a sense of family that they’re never experienced,” Atkinson says. “The girls have to shop for their food as a family and we sit down at a table to eat together.”
An equally important function of TMSF is the pregnancy prevention outreach program Atkinson has designed. “It’s like a real-life ‘Teen Mom’ in-service. We want to measure our success in terms of fewer teen pregnancies, eventually breaking that cycle of poverty,” she says.
Currently, TMSF partners with the Boy Scouts, touring schools twice weekly. Focused on abstinence, the program is supplemented with self esteem-building dialogue. “We want these girls to know that they’re worth waiting for love, and they don’t need to give away their bodies to feel appreciated and accepted.”
The Bigger Picture
The plight of these young women might be easy to ignore, but Atkinson can quickly remind those who turn a blind eye that cyclical, generational poverty isn’t just an “urban” problem–it’s everyone’s problem. “Teenage pregnancy carries a high cost in social and economic health for the mother and children,” she says.
Tax dollars provide financial care for the mother and twice over for her baby. With two or three kids in the system, the costs can rise to as much as $8,000 a month.
Because teen moms aren’t ready to give birth, special prenatal care is required. In addition, their babies are more likely to be born premature, have low birth weight and have developmental delays. Teen moms are less likely to complete their education, can’t find or hold down a good job, and that many are required to go on welfare and tax payers continue to shell out more to support them and their babies in the system.”
Nationally, it costs an average of $9 billion annually to care for these families. Education, prevention and support for current teen moms are the best ways keep families strong and keep kids out of the system.
You can be a part of this positive change. TMSF is always in need of baby care items, such as diapers, clothing and food and monetary donations are always appreciated and put to good use. Just a single $2,500 annual family sponsorship covers everything from bus passes to field trips, diversity training, financial literacy, child care items and more – everything the mothers need for an entire year.
TMSF survives thanks to the incredible work done by its volunteers. “Teenage moms need positive role models; they really need positive women in their lives,” Atkinson says. “
The Mustard Seed Foundation employees have experience working with the teen mother population. Staff members have training and certifications in the areas of: emergency housing, social work, family advocacy, teen conflict resolution, child abuse prevention, crisis counseling, victim advocacy, community health, parenting and teaching.
Shondale Atkinson’s lead-by-example attitude demonstrates what it truly means that all it takes to make a difference in your world is to have faith just the size of a mustard seed and cultivate that into something bigger than yourself.
Production of the film by CultureMASH is well under way. Both Shondale Atkinson and CultureMASH hope that through this film the home can continue it’s mission by creating more awareness about both the need for TMSF and the positive results in our community such services provide.