When 17-year-old Karen Geronimo learned she was pregnant, she was worried about what people would think.
“When I first found out, I didn’t think I could trust anyone but my parents, because I didn’t know how other people would take it,” Geronimo said. “But then I met Miss Kathy.”
“Miss Kathy” is Kathy Herr Davis, an OB-GYN nurse practitioner who works as the school nurse at Fresno High School and is the first person administrators call when a student is pregnant.
When Herr Davis looked at a bare file room at the school, she saw an opportunity to help young moms like Geronimo. First 5 Fresno County provided a grant to transform the room, which now includes a rocking chair, a breast pump, a refrigerator to store milk, a diaper-changing table and a TV that plays lullabies.
Legislation passed last year requires public schools to provide breast-feeding students with access to a private room other than a bathroom. Fresno High is the only school in the district to have a designated area of its kind, but a Fresno Unified spokesman said Friday all schools make accommodations to provide breast-feeding students with a secure space when needed.
“This is a matter of health and education – for the students and their children,” Herr Davis said. The new room, unveiled Friday, is only one of the ways she and other Fresno High staff work to help students cope with young motherhood.
“Of course, (students) are scared … Sometimes their parents don’t know yet or they’re embarrassed,” she said. “But the first thing I do is tell them, ‘We’re here to support you.’ I tell them, ‘My goal is for you to achieve your goals.’ And you can just see the relief that they have.”
The benefits of breast-feeding abound: The milk has antibodies that help babies fight off viruses, and research shows that breast-fed babies grow up to be healthier adults with longer life expectancies and lower risks of cancer, diabetes and obesity.
We feel supported and relieved.
Fresno High student Karen Geronimo
But breast-feeding rates are low in the Valley, and even lower among local teen moms. In Fresno County, ranked 43rd in the state, 56 percent of mothers exclusively breast-feed, according to a 2014 report from the California WIC Association.
Dr. Anna Ekstrom, a resident at UCSF Fresno Pediatrics, attended Friday’s event at Fresno High and has made it her mission to help teens raise healthy children. Ekstrom had three children before she was 18 and breast-fed them.
“We don’t know why, but it could be that at such a young age, it’s just easier for someone else to take care of the baby by giving them a bottle, or that they’re embarrassed or don’t know how it’s going to affect their bodies,” she said. “But I want to change that. It’s the most perfect nutrition for a baby.”
Michelle Alarcon, a Fresno State student who attended Fresno High shortly after giving birth to her son at 14, returned to the school Friday to show her support for the breast-feeding room.
“There were many times I was writing a paper and nursing at the same time, or I’d get to school with two or three hours of sleep and spit-up on my shirt,” Alarcon said. “It was hard to juggle, but I had a lot of support. My son was the reason for me to pursue college. It gave me more of a purpose.”
56 percentOf Fresno County moms exclusively breast-feed
Alarcon’s advice for Fresno High’s teen moms was to use their children as motivation to work harder – not as an excuse to give up.
Fresno High student Viririana Covarrubias, who has a 1-year-old son, had some less serious advice. “Don’t get stressed out when they start pooping, even though it smells really bad,” she told Geronimo, whose due date is about a month before graduation day at Fresno High.
Geronimo laughed and said the environment at Fresno High really helps. “We feel supported and relieved, knowing we have people on this campus that know the struggles of being a mom and understand the fact that we’re also students,” she said. “It’s important for us to have a balance of both.”
Principal John Forbes doesn’t try to avoid talking about the important issues surrounding teen pregnancy at his school. Instead, he praises the girls for overcoming obstacles.
“You’re my heroes. You’re why we get up in the morning,” he told the teens Friday. “I get a lot of inspiration from what you do on a daily basis. I want you guys to go to college, come back and teach here and enroll your sons or daughters here.”