“YASHEKA, you can consider your balance paid.”
Those were the words of Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Olivia
Grange, after listening to the story of the young mother who is struggling with the cost of her nursing programme at Excelsior Community College.
Yasheka Brooks was one of the speakers at the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation's charity ball held on May 26 at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in New Kingston. She was included on the programme as an alumna of the Women's Centre — a successful student with a story to tell.
Brooks was only 14 when she became pregnant.
“Being pregnant in high school was devastating; the year 2011 was one of the worst years of my life,” she told the audience as she recounted the isolation felt as well as the “discrimination, emotional turmoil and abuse” she endured when it became clear that she would be another teenaged mother.
“I became depressed to the point that I wanted to hurt myself,” she said.
Grange reminded the audience in her address that adolescent pregnancy is a “global issue”. UNFPA estimates that across the world 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant each year, and another two million aged 14 and under also become pregnant.
The Women's Centre was established in 1978 to help young girls who become pregnant continue their education. This year, it is celebrating 40 years of life-changing work with more than 46,000 pregnant teenagers and their babies.
Brooks had dropped out of high school at grade nine when she enrolled in the Women's Centre location in Port Antonio, Portland. By that time, her “church also took its stance” asking her to “stop taking part in every activity”. Her family, friends and community were also “very judgemental”. In contrast, she found the staff at the Women's Centre to be “kind, loving, caring, understanding” and she was happy to go to the centre daily.
“The centre changed my life. They taught me that there was hope and I was the only one who could make my dreams become a reality,” said Brooks.
One important duty of the Women's Centre is to advocate for pregnant mothers to return to the formal secondary school system after the birth of their babies.
Brooks gave birth to a baby girl and was reintegrated into the high school system.
She had been a good student before, but was motivated to do even better now, despite the stigma that came with being an adolescent mother. She was scoring high marks in the 80s and 90s and was placing second or third in her class. By grade 10, she won the mathematics prize for her cohort and was ready to take two CXC subjects. She aced them, and sat another eight subjects in grade 11. She aced those as well as the two CAPE subjects she took at sixth form.
On account of her good performance and discipline, she was made a prefect and was later nominated for the position of deputy head girl. But the nomination was not accepted because she was an adolescent mother.
“The selection decided that being placed in such a leading position may send the wrong message to the other students, telling them that it was okay to become pregnant in school. This motivated me to work even harder to make sure I passed all my subjects,” Brooks said.
She admitted that attending high school as a teenage mother was exceedingly difficult. At night she studied with her child in her arms and went to school in the day, penniless and hungry.
But she said “hunger became my best friend” and she read when she was hungry, “and this would make my belly full again.”
Brooks was accepted into the nursing programme at Excelsior Community College in 2016. She was unable to pay the full tuition up front, but organised a bake sale and would vend from street to raise funds to pay the tuition and keep up with her expenses.
Through the efforts of the Women's Centre, she obtained a 2017 Scotia GEMS grant of $50,000 towards her school fees. The Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport also gave her a grant of J$50,000 in 2017 to help with the expenses.
But there was still a balance.
Grange has assured Brooks that the balance will be cleared as the young mother, who has a Grade Point Average of 3.20, must be shown love, compassion and care and given every opportunity to realise her dreams, to look after her family, and become an outstanding mother.
The minister said there were other adolescent mothers struggling to complete their education and they needed support. That is why she recently launched ASTREAM (Advancing Secondary, Tertiary, Remedial Education for Adolescent Mothers). The programme, which will be administered by the Women's Centre, will offer mentorship, sponsorship and scholarships to adolescent mothers.