In 1980, a terrified 18-year-old named Jill Staples gave birth to a little girl she named Erin.
And she had no idea what to do. "I didn't know how it was going to work out. I didn't know how I was going to support her," Staples says. "I didn't know how in the world I was going to do this with a baby."
Three decades later in a modified duplex near Gonzaga University, Staples has heard this sort of story again and again from the teen girls who live there, who struggle with pregnancy or motherhood. And when those girls tell her that she doesn't understand what they're going through, she has a response.
"I can't be in your shoes, because I didn't live your life," Staples tells them. But then she explains a little about her past. How she got pregnant as a teen, and how it gave her focus. "It gives me credibility with them. They do know I had to struggle and I had to walk the same path they are."
Today Staples manages Alexandria's House — a transitional housing program run by the Volunteers of America. It's intended to be both a safe place for expectant and new teen mothers and a training ground to turn them into better moms. Up to six pregnant teenagers or moms can stay there at a time.
The atmosphere at the house is not much different from an ordinary family home — in the summer, the lush green backyard hosts birthday parties, complete with balloons and decorations. There are parties at Christmas and Thanksgiving.
In the kitchen, the young mothers take turns cooking for the rest of the house. Some enter with plenty of cooking skills, while others are taught the art of making spaghetti or tacos, working up to more elaborate dishes like casseroles.
"They'll teach you how to deep clean, they'll teach you to how to cook," says Asmin Foster, a former resident. "If you need help with your kids— when I had twin boys, they helped me."
They're given support to make goals and achieve them. But the most important piece, Staples says, is "helping stop the generational cycle of abuse and neglect." In a sense, these mothers are taught to become fluent in "baby," translating their children's cries and actions into what they really need.
"We're teaching them to be the best safe haven for their children. Our program is their safe haven," Staples says. "Our statement is to always be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind."
As she talks, Staples is mostly understated. She shies away from photographs. But to the young women she's mentored, her support means everything. One of the house's 'graduates' got married and moved to Fort Hood, Texas. When U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan went on a shooting spree on the base in November 2009, killing 13 people, the base shut down. That mother couldn't get to her children at the base's day care, and she couldn't reach her husband.
So she called Staples.
"I just talked to her," Staples says. "I talked to her every 45 minutes to an hour until she received her children back into her arms."
The house offers an atmosphere of consistency and fairness, and while there are consequences for breaking its rules, Staples says it's important for the young women to know that even when they're disciplined, it's not done in anger.
"They learn that then they can trust," Staples says. "That even if they fall down and make mistakes, we still care about them." ♦