Nonprofit gives assistance to teen moms who want a college education
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
9/25/12 at 7:11 AM
Get more information about J.A.M.E.S.
Alisa Bell doesn't mince words when talking about her life's hardships - including becoming pregnant at 14 and working through grief after the fatal shooting of her teenage son.
But her tales end with lessons in tenacity, perseverance, the need for a support network and no excuses.
She halted her family's generational cycle of teen moms by obtaining a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in organizational development and by focusing on parenting.
"It's true children of teen moms often become teen moms, too," she said. "But it works the other way, too. Children of college graduates often become college graduates."
While working full time and being a mother and wife, Bell found the time to start a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teen mothers get a college education.
"I didn't do any of it by myself," she said. "There was always someone waiting in the wings to help me. Someone was always leading me to the next stop. I always had women mentors, older and more experienced than me, leading the way. That positive relationship is what I want to give back to young girls."
When Bell became pregnant as a high school freshman in 1979, she was automatically transferred to Tulsa's Margaret Hudson program for pregnant teenagers.
"You weren't given a choice at that time," she said. "Going through high school, no one really told you college was an option. They were happy to get us through high school, but no one explained to us what we could do after that. We hear all the bad statistics we're up against, but no one tells us how to avoid it."
At age 18, Bell had her second child. Like most teenage mothers, she thought she was in love. It didn't last.
"At age 14, 15 or 16, no one will admit this. But I did know it could happen to me," she said. "Not until you're an adult can you admit it. But there is too much information out there to allow girls to say they didn't know it could happen."
Bell chose to stay in her traditional high school through graduation in 1983, working at a couple of minimum-wage jobs after receiving a diploma.
"I thought, 'I am better than this. There has to be a better way,' " she said. "I knew when I went to college I would be able to find a better job. But I had no idea how much my world would open up with a college degree."
Bell considers herself fortunate to have family members with college educations. They helped her navigate the sometimes overwhelming process of applying to schools, seeking financial aid, and finding housing and child care.
While living in Tahlequah and attending Northeastern State University, she focused on the routine of single motherhood. Dating was not a priority.
"I was able to bond with my children," she said. "I was able to be a mother."
Bell intended to become a teacher but found that the salary could not support her and her children. She landed a job at an insurance company, where she has been working for about 20 years.
She married Craig Bell, and the couple have a daughter, who is now 15.
In May 1998, Bell's 14-year-old son, James Deandre King, was killed when his cousin shot him in the head while they were at his paternal grandmother's house.
The cousin, Darell Steven King, was charged as a youthful offender and received a 10-year term in August 1999. In 2011, he was among three defendants convicted in the gang-related murder of a 22-year-old and received three life sentences, one without the possibility of parole.
Bell was devastated by her son's death and sought a master's degree from the University of Oklahoma to find a new focus. Her coursework required the development of a program to seek a grant.
For years, Bell had been a guest speaker at Margaret Hudson and sat on its board. But she wanted to directly affect a teen mother's education.
Based on that assignment, she founded J.A.M.E.S. (Just About Mothers Excelling in School) in 2006 to raise money for college scholarships for teen parents and provide them support to stay in school.
"My desire to do this was there long before James died," Bell said. "I knew I had this in my heart. His death was the catalyst. He gave me the momentum and the name. This gave me something to put all my grief into."
The nonprofit has given out about $13,000 to eight teenage mothers. Of those, two graduated from college, one graduated from cosmetology school and one has decided to join the military. One of the college graduates is working toward a master's degree in the medical field.
The hardest part has been finding people to apply and participate.
"In my mind, I thought this would be a slam dunk and all girls would apply," she said. "I found many don't even have the concept of education in their minds. They are in difficult life circumstances, and in many cases they would be first-generation college graduates. They haven't seen anyone do it.
"It's a whole different mindset for them. They may be mothers, but they are still not at a level of maturity they may need. We are trying to plant seeds of possibility."
Bell volunteers with teen moms to establish a relationship and help them understand that college is not just for valedictorians.
"Just because you're not doing the best, don't quit," she said. "You may try to give 100 percent for an A and get a C. Give yourself a break. It's about tenacity and getting through. These are not your typical college students."
She and volunteers with her group have mentored 50 to 75 teenage mothers during the last three years.
The nonprofit organization is creating partnerships with other groups to share resources, eliminate duplication and complement strengths. The oversight board is hands-on, with members handling different aspects of its operations, including evaluating outcomes and accounting.
Bell said the group supports pregnancy-prevention programs but focuses on its mission to aid teen moms.
"It feels like we are acknowledging this issue finally and putting concentrated effort into figuring it out," Bell said. "But people being open about it and sitting at the same table, we can see what we need to do to help those who find themselves as teen moms."
- Just About Mothers Excelling in School
- A nonprofit organization established in 2006 by Alisa Bell to provide scholarships and educational assistance to pregnant and parenting teenage mothers who are seeking higher education.
- Features an educational doula, which is a mentor to help the young mothers develop an education plan and find the resources they need to finish school.
- Applications can be found at tulsaworld.com/jamesinc and are accepted through May 15.
Oklahoma birth facts
- Oklahoma is fifth in the U.S. in the rate of teen births.
- In 2008, teen childbearing in Oklahoma cost taxpayers $190 million, including public health care, child welfare, incarceration and lost revenue.
U.S. birth facts
Source: Tulsa Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition
- 4 out of 10 teenage girls will become pregnant before age 20.
- Girls born to teen moms are 83 percent more likely to become teen moms.
- Boys born to teen moms are 2.7 times more likely to become incarcerated.
- Children of teen moms are 50 percent more likely to fail a grade in school, twice as likely to be abused or neglected, and two to three times more likely to run away from home.
- The national average cost for each teen birth and attended expenses is about $79,320. The U.S. annual cost to taxpayers for teenage childbearing is about $11 billion.
- For every $1 spent on publicly funded family planning programs, $4.02 is saved in averted Medicaid birth costs.
- Girls who have unintended pregnancies are less likely to finish high school and attend college and are more likely to live in poverty and engage in risky behavior that threatens the health of both the mother and child.
Original Print Headline: Higher ed for teen moms
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Alisa Bell and her daughters BreAnna Bell (left) and LaToya Davis are shown at their home in Owasso earlier this month. Alisa Bell founded the nonprofit J.A.M.E.S., which raises scholarship money and educational support to teen moms going to college. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World