While still in high school, 18-year-old Reyna Ramirez found herself pregnant, frightened and overwhelmed. She was living two hours away from home with friends. Then things began to deteriorate.
“I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect,” says Reyna. “I had no support and I didn’t know how to be a mom.”
She decided to return to South Bend to live with her mother. It was then that she went to the Women’s Care Center for assistance. After she decided to parent her baby, they referred her to the Catholic Charities ECHO Program.
ECHO, which stands for Education Creates Hope and Opportunity, is designed to help pregnant teens stay in high school and complete their diploma, all while still raising their children. ECHO also helps young mothers continue their education beyond high school up to age 24.
Like many other teen moms, Reyna faced the possibility of having to drop out. And without a high-school diploma, she would have very poor job prospects. With the right support, however, these young mothers can get the education they need to land better-paying jobs and keep their families out of poverty.
In financial terms, the Catholic Charities ECHO Program has been a great success. Moms like Reyna have a 90+% graduation rate, which compares to only 40% for teen moms nationally. It is estimated that every mother on assistance costs the government a minimum of $640,000 in services over her lifetime. To date, ECHO has helped more than 800 young mothers avoid poverty.
“But the program is about more than avoiding poverty,” says Reyna’s ECHO Case Manager Nora Bautista. “ECHO is about helping moms achieve their potential and creating a culture of human flourishing in our diocese.”
Reyna was fearful at first about ECHO. She thought the people at Catholic Charities would look down on her for being pregnant at such a young age. What she found, instead, was a warm welcome, much-needed assistance and a very pro-life response among the staff.
Nora first helped Reyna with a schedule that would allow her to stay in school and still look after her son. More importantly, Nora helped Reyna set priorities, get organized and help her through the many personal difficulties she faced.
“Nora is my backbone,” says Reyna, “She has kept me focused and is always there for me.”
Over the years, Catholic Charities has established strong working relationships with high schools in Fort Wayne, South Bend and elsewhere in the diocese. Those professional relationships are vital to the success of the program because they help ECHO case managers achieve a consensus on the plan for the student among faculty, staff and parents, and carry out the plan.
Thanks to ECHO, Reyna graduated on time, but she had no plans for continuing her education beyond high school. Nora once again stepped in and helped her investigate career possibilities. Reyna decided she wanted to do something in the medical field so Nora helped her coordinate her search for possible programs. She also helped Reyna with the scholarships and financial aid necessary to pursue her goal. Eventually Reyna decided on Ivy Tech Community College, where she enrolled in September.
Reyna credits Nora with helping her organize and prioritize her life so she can continue her studies and raise her son. More importantly, Reyna feels that advancing her education will help her stay out of poverty and provide the life she wants for her family.
“To be able to have my son in my arms and provide him with a stable family – that was life changing,” says Reyna.