At Burnside State High School, a special unit is providing support to young mothers so they can keep studying and achieving their goals. It’s an initiative that is not just making headway, it’s changing lives.

by Julie Shelton

SUPPORTING TEENAGERS with Education, Mothering and Mentoring (STEMM) program was created in 2007 by Jacqui Deane. A school education program around young mums and mums-to-be, it is the first of its type in Queensland to support pregnant girls and young mothers through development of a unique stand-alone curriculum.

The program covers literacy and numeracy, Certificate III training in Children Services, tertiary preparation and flexible education classes such as cooking and fitness, all while their babies are within arm’s reach.

STEMM is located in one building incorporating a teaching classroom (with a bank of computers) and two rooms that operate as adjunct care facilities for the children – the baby room, which takes babies from birth, and the toddler room, which takes children from about 16 months up to about 4 years old.

On a warm Thursday afternoon, there is plenty of activity going on. Mums sit chatting while they wait for the eleven-seater bus to take them home, via a run that covers Cooroy down to Caloundra. The crèches are bright and colourful, and the children are relaxed and well behaved. There is a strong sense of family and caring.

Janelle Logan, Acting Coordinator, says that the way the unit delivers support is as vitally important as what it is they are delivering.

“We provide a safe and non-judgmental environment,” she explains. “There is no minimum age but if they are into their second trimester and under 17, they are automatically accepted. We’ve got 39 girls currently enrolled, with most staying in the program for about two years.”

Trained case managers develop individual support plans so that, as well as meeting their educational goals, STEMM gives its students opportunities to develop life-skills, pre- and post-birth plans, parenting skills, healthy relationships and self-worth.

Maleny-based, Mick Devlin, STEMM’s social worker, says that locating STEMM within Burnside State High’s grounds has opened up opportunities to break down stereotypes and educate other students.

“The girls go down to the mainstream school – and other schools – and talk to the students about what it’s like to be a teenager and pregnant. They tell them how it really is and change the glossy picture of teen parenthood,” he says, stressing the courage this requires.

“70% of our students have had or are still having mental health issues, domestic violence, or homelessness. We have girls who require a high level of support.”

“Earning and Learning is a great idea to help the girls escape poverty and we have found the only way you can re-engage these young people in education is to have what we call ‘wrap-around support’, so they can concentrate on their studies.”

Amy’s Story …

I’M FROM MERIDAN PLAINS. I’m originally from Ipswich but moved to be closer to family. I was doing a Diploma of Beauty but when I got here (to STEMM) I found that I could enrol in the TPP (Tertiary Preparation Pathway) and I realised that my passion was to help people in my situation – young mothers.

Young mothers don’t really get noticed, we get pushed back and it’s quite sad – all the girls have the potential to make something of themselves. I don’t regret having a child so young – I don’t care what anyone thinks. I have a daughter who is 1 and I’m almost 20.

I didn’t realise I could go to Uni and didn’t realise I had it in me. I’ve just started TPP and I’m going so well – the teachers are amazing.

I’m going to enrol in a Bachelor of Social Work. I’ll start middle of next year at Sunshine Coast Uni. I’ll probably do two subjects to start with, so that’s 6 – 8 contact hours per week and that’s manageable.

Chelsea’s Story …

I MOVED DOWN TO THE SUNSHINE COAST from Darwin with my son’s father when I was five months pregnant and I knew no one. I was at home every day until my son was three months old. I moved to Nambour after I left the relationship, which was abusive.

I just turned 20 in August. My son is two and a half and I’m due with my second child in four weeks. My son was 9lb 5oz so I’m hoping for a small baby this time! They have newborns in the crèche, which is what I’ll be doing with this one. It’s a girl!

I found out about STEMM from Centrelink. I’m completing a traineeship, a Cert. III in Business Admin. I do hours at the Sunshine Coast Rugby League Office at Yandina, a trainer does training days here at Burnside High and we do other work on-line.

Before I was doing the traineeship I was doing TPP but I failed the last subject because there was so much going on, with Family Court and a custody battle (for my son). So, after the Cert. III, I’ll go back and finish the TPP and then I’m going to enrol in a double degree in Business and Accounting.

STEMM literally is my lifesaver. All my family is up in Darwin. STEMM has helped me with parenting, with my study, and with this pregnancy. They are like my second family. Without STEMM I’d still probably be in an abusive relationship, I wouldn’t have any future – I wouldn’t have anything.

“We offer a “circle of security” approach with the girls”, adds Mick Devlin – we welcome them here and take an interest in their lives – so that they then use that model with their children.”

The support is everywhere – between the girls, and the staff. You can see it between the staff. I thank the crèche staff every time I leave there because I know that I couldn’t do what I do without that support. You can come here and be young, single and pregnant and there’s no judgement. You can leave an abusive relationship and they congratulate you – they’re there for all the times, not just the good times.

Mick Devlin says this year has been particularly tough financially, with a change to award rates tripling their unfunded support arm.

“We now have to raise $60,000 per year, or $15,000 per term, instead of $20,000 for the whole year. We have gone all out with our fundraising to help us keep delivering what we’re doing, but it’s difficult to raise that kind of money turning sausages on a BBQ. We rely on support from other groups, who hold big fundraising drives and events that benefit us.”

As the bus arrives to take the students home, the last babies are retrieved from the crèche, bags are gathered and there are hugs all round. It’s easy to see how important this program is to these young women and how important it is for STEMM to remain financially secure.

For more information or to offer assistance, see www.stemm.com.au or contact STEMM on 5459 7333 (Mondays to Thursdays 9am-2pm).