Great Beginnings

By Angela Bristow

According to the 2010 Census, in that year there were 900 teen pregnancies in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Of those 900 pregnancies, 600 resulted in live births, and Medicaid paid for 300 of those.

“I’d like people to understand that teen pregnancy is a large problem in the Lehigh Valley,” said Roger Ochse, director of development for Great Beginnings, a program of Valley Youth
House, Allentown.

Great Beginnings is working to help some of those teen mothers turn their lives and the lives of their babies around for the better. This program is part of Valley Youth House Independent Living program that works with teens throughout Eastern Pennsylvania. These teens are in the foster care system or are homeless and are being helped to develop the skills they need to be productive adults. The girls in the program range in age from 16 to 19, with the majority being of high
school age.

Recognizing the growing need to assist these teen mothers, Valley Youth House has purchased two buildings in east Allentown that will allow them to service more teen moms than they have in the past. The remodeling of the buildings will be completed in the first half of this year and will enable the Great Beginnings program to house approximately 20 mom/baby pairs. The buildings will also be fitted with facilities that include meeting rooms and an outdoor playground.

Great Beginnings is a program for teen mothers and their babies with two main goals. First, to make sure the babies get a good start in life through good medical care, early childhood stimulation, appropriate nutrition, and having a mom who has the right skills to be a good mom.
Second, because the girls that come to Great Beginnings don’t have any place to stay, the program also wants to provide a safe place for the moms and their babies and help them acquire what they need to be self-sufficient adults.

“We start with education,” said Ochse. “Our site is close to Dieruff High School, so they can walk if they’re still in high school. For those that have dropped out we help them get their GED [General Educational Development]. We work with them to develop a life plan.”

Counselors with the program help the teens prepare for job interviews, get work experience, and understand what is required of them to get and keep a job. Since the final goal is for the mothers to be self-sufficient, they also learn how to make a budget, figure expenses for owning a car and renting an apartment, opening a bank account, and saving money.

At the culmination of the program Ochse says that the girls will “have the skills for a job that will allow them to support themselves and their children, and when they leave us one day, to be able to find a safe and stable place
to live.”

Ochse said that somebody is on-site 24-hours a day, including a resident advisor that sleeps in one of the program’s buildings. There are counselors and a therapist that come in and work with the girls. Fulfilling the first goal of the program, the teens are put in contact with doctors, nurses, and early child care and child education professionals.

“We get over 100 referrals a year, but there are only about 20 spots available, so we want kids that are motivated to be good moms and be successful,” said Ochse. Many of the girls are referred to Great Beginnings by the departments of Children and Youth in Lehigh and Northampton counties or other organizations. Others find the program themselves.

“Once somebody is referred to us, the next step is an interview with the program director,” said Ochse.

Ochse said that with education, work experience, and a life plan Great Beginnings endeavors to raise the expectations of these girls, to make them realize that they can be somebody on their own.

“We try to work with them to develop an outlook that they can make something of themselves and achieve things for themselves and their babies. We try to provide good alternatives for teens and their babies, the support they need to have a healthy child and raise a healthy child,” said Ochse.

Of the 13 young mothers that were in the program in 2011, 92 percent achieved positive educational outcomes by finishing high school and 85 percent moved on to
stable housing.

The problem of teen pregnancy is complex and far-reaching in its effects. Ochse said that children of teen moms are more likely to be born prematurely and at a low birth weight, and the children of teen moms are more likely to become teen moms when they grow up. The daughters of teen moms are three times more likely to become teen moms than their peers. Thirty-four percent of teen moms don’t get their high school diploma or GED, compared to six percent of the general student population. Nationally, 40 percent of teen moms will have another child within two years.

Ochse concluded by saying, “Of the teen moms who have been in our programs over the last five years, 55 percent reported a history of abuse, 45 percent have parents with mental health issues, and 80 percent reported severe conflict with their parents.

“These kids are tending to come from histories of neglect and abuse, and unless they get some support they tend not to do well.”

Great Beginnings is funded in part by a federal grant, referrals from Children and Youth departments, and private philanthropy.

“A problem like this needs funding, no gift is too small or too large. We have apartments to furnish, so we need household goods and babies need a lot of stuff,” said Ochse. Those desiring to contribute may contact Valley Youth House at 610.820.0166 or by emailing them at

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