If she hadn't become pregnant as a high school dropout at age 16, Charlaine Ang doubts she would have graduated last Friday.
"I've done my part of partying and now I realize that's not the kind of life I want for myself," says the slender 19-year-old with long, straight hair. "If I had not continued going to school at that time, I would see myself as working at McDonald's still and- I don't want to be in that kind of life or situation."
With the help of self-paced courses offered through the Vancouver School Board's South Hill Education Centre's youth program and the Tupper Young Parent Services alternative program, Ang is more than graduating. She won a scholarship and a bursary that will help pay for her post-secondary studies at Capilano University next year.
Ang stopped partying when she chose to keep her child, and she's survived a demanding schedule for the last two years. She attends the Tupper program-which trains teen moms how to prepare nutritious meals, and provides fitness sessions and childcare-by day and works retail at Metrotown until 9: 30 p.m. three nights a week. Ang often rushes home to cook for herself, her three-year-old son Rainier and her father, who sometimes works double shifts until 11 p.m. as a courier. She drops Rainier off at his father's family's home, and then heads to Metrotown. Ang also works Saturdays and Sundays.
Her once consuming social life now seems unimportant.
"Basically I'll do anything to give my son and myself a positive life. I don't want my son to go through the kind of things I did where there's been a family separation, poverty and everything from when we were in the Philippines," she says with a trembling voice. "I just want him to be able to [recognize], when he's a bit older and understands more, 'Like my mom went through this and I'm proud of her for sticking with me.'"
With its rainbow-hued play areas, blooming hanging baskets and sprouting garden, the YWCA Emma's Early Learning and Care Centre is a much cheerier sight than the adjacent portable at East 23rd Avenue and Carolina Street where Tupper Young Parent Services runs. The portable's interior, however, is bright and comfortable.
While the Courier talks to Ang in the portable's conference room- furnished cushy couches, burgundy bolsters and pink and purple accents-other students assemble healthy lunches in the kitchen, where one of the daycare's play areas is visible from its windows.
On a grey Wednesday in early June, Ang joins five young and expectant mothers in the portable's classroom at noon to tackle her English course work. The noon start mid-week gives students and their children time to attend appointments.
Ang has travelled a difficult road to find this focus.
Ang, her mother Maria, father Charles and brother moved to California from the Philippines when Ang was seven. But her father needed to return to the Philippines after a year to deal with his business. Charles didn't want to saddle his wife with both children so Ang returned with him and her parents agreed to reunite in Canada. The stay in the Philippines unexpectedly stretched for more than a year with Ang not attending school. Charles was unable to gain entry to Canada so Ang travelled with a family friend to Vancouver, arriving in January 2003, when she was 10. Her father wasn't able to move to Canada until spring 2007. "So there's been a long separation from my father and it made my mom struggle a bit," Ang says and starts to cry.
"Because she had to support my brother and I with minimum income wage and at that time my father wasn't able to support us because- It makes me emotional sometimes seeing as how much my family and I have gone through."
Before her father arrived in Canada and while her mother worked long hours at a bakery, Ang often ditched school. She spent little time in the two-bedroom apartment where she shared a bed with her mom.
Her father's interventions once he'd joined the family in Canada met little success. "Education, I didn't really see the importance of it," Ang says. "I was just so distracted by everything going on around me. My friends, they seemed like my family just because I was able to relate to them and their problems and there came the partying and stuff life that."
Ang and a male friend who was a year older fell in love in 2007. Ang quit Tupper in March 2008. "I didn't take life seriously, in a way," she says.
She failed to take her birth control pills diligently and discovered she was pregnant in October 2008. "I was scared because I was just so confused as to what would happen," she says. "I was just ashamed as to what people would say or think, Grade 10 and pregnant, dropped out of school and stuff."
Ang initially considered an abortion but once the future grandparents pledged their support, Ang, a non-church attending Catholic, decided against ending the pregnancy.
"I decided to stick through with it, and, yeah, own up to my responsibility," she says.
Ang mostly hid indoors while she was expecting, not wanting anyone to see her growing belly.
"When people would see me with a pregnant stomach, they would look at me as if pregnancy is a crime and that I had killed somebody," she says. "It kind of lowered my self-esteem."
After more than a year at home with Rainier, Ang felt ready to reenter the world. "I finally realized the importance of education and without it I won't be able to go far if I don't continue," she says.
While still nursing her son, Ang enrolled in self-paced study at South Hill Education Centre, where she only had to attend three hours a day. Her mother cared for her son Rainier while Ang attended South Hill, but doing so limited her mother's hours at the bakery.
Ang knew about Tupper Young Parent Services but felt reluctant to have strangers care for her son. Family cared for offspring in the Philippines. But when the strain on her mother appeared too great, the then 17-year-old enrolled in the district-wide alternative program. "He looks forward to the daycare. He's like my alarm clock in the morning. 'I want to go to daycare, I want to go to daycare,'" says Ang, who shares a bed with Rainier in the two-bedroom main floor of a house her dad rents. Her mom, now a live-in caregiver, visits on weekends.
"Like, right now, if I were to drop him off there, he'd open the gate to go to where the toys are. He won't even say bye to me or hug me or kiss me or anything," she adds with a laugh.
While Rainier benefits from socializing with other kids, Ang benefits from the early childhood care workers' expertise.
She didn't think Rainier was ready to be potty trained but daycare staff showed her he was.
"I have, I have blue underwear," boasts the bouncing little boy with saucer-sized brown eyes while he washes his hands after downing some cream of spinach soup at the daycare.
"I'll look out through the window and just see him playing and it just really makes me happy to see him happy, as well, that he's doing really well and he's made some positive relationships with the kids there, too," she adds.
T he school board and the YWCA Metro Vancouver started the program for young parents in 1983.
It has taken various forms with parents attending regular classes alongside other students at Tupper, working from a separate classroom and from the portable starting seven years ago when the daycare was redeveloped. In the early 2000s, enrolment had dwindled to a handful of students but the program's full-time teacher, Anita Hollands, estimates 15 to 20 students have participated each year for the past six years.
"They can whip over to the daycare next door, feed their child and be back here. So it's much more supportive of their role as moms while still trying to support them as their role as students, because at 15, 16, these girls have to wear many hats and it's not easy for them," says Hollands.
Tupper Young Parent Services accommodates 20 Grade 8 to 12 students from Vancouver. Most arrive at age 16 or 17 and stay until they're 19. Students work with individual education plans towards a regular Dogwood diploma or an Adult Dogwood, both of which can prepare them for post-secondary education, or they receive a School Completion Certificate if they haven't completed sufficient credits to graduate by the time they've aged out of the system at 19. One full-time and one parttime teacher help students set daily and weekly goals and they provide one-to-one tutoring as needed. Young Parent Services also runs with a full-time youth and family worker who supports students in a variety of ways including home visits with newborns.