Brenda Lopez talks excitedly about her future.
About her dream of being a cop. About starting college this fall. About proving wrong her own mother, who last year predicted Lopez would never finish high school.
That the 18-year-old is looking forward instead of repeating a cycle of poverty is likely a testament to her own will. But her life's new direction also shows the possibilities of a local anti-poverty program that aims to help young mothers and their children improve educational outcomes.
Lopez is among some 600 teens and young adults who have been involved in a Building Bright Futures parenting program that started two years ago. Its goals are to coordinate community resources to help young parents finish high school and improve their parenting skills, and then launch their own children on a stronger path.
Building Bright Futures, a nonprofit that emerged in 2006, isn't doing anything explicitly new here in its Teen and Young Parent Program.
But the organization has offered its resources to help existing programs and to present young parents a fuller array of services. It also has added testing and tracking functions to make sure infants and young children hit developmental benchmarks.
Fawn Taylor, director of early childhood services for Building Bright Futures, said it's too early to see what impact the coordinated approach is having. She said 70 percent of the young parents have remained in school in large part because of the extra support.
She and other advocates say there are established links between educational achievement and income and between household stability and child brain development.
“The academic achievement gap starts when children are born, especially in high-poverty families,” said Renee Franklin, executive director of the elementary learning centers for the metropolitan area's Learning Community, a two-county governmental entity. “Once that achievement gap starts, it just gets worse and worse and worse. And when they hit school, it continues.”
The Learning Community is separately involved in a research project targeting resources to 20 poor mothers to improve developmental outcomes of their children. The underlying philosophy is similar to what's at work with Building Bright Futures.
“We're intrigued by how much potential difference can be made in a child by starting so young,” Franklin said.
In Lopez's case, she is not the sole focus of the Building Bright Futures program — daughter Brianna, 3, also is.
Rewind to last fall.
Lopez followed a boyfriend from her native Texas to Omaha. She landed here as a 17-year-old mother of a toddler. She left her own mother, a Mexican immigrant, who believed the odds were so stacked against Lopez that she couldn't possibly finish her senior year of high school.
It certainly seemed that way at first. Lopez couldn't enroll in high school until she had lined up day care for Brianna. But she couldn't get state-subsidized day care without showing she was enrolled in school. And there was no way she could afford market-rate day care.
It was a frustrating conundrum that would have kept Lopez from finishing high school. But a counselor at South High School put her in touch with Building Bright Futures, which assigned Lopez a family resource specialist.
Enter Kelly Schiermeyer. She works for the Nebraska Children's Home Society, one of the local groups Building Bright Futures has tapped for help.
Schiermeyer is officially Lopez's caseworker. Unofficially she is her confidante, her counselor, her fixer.
Schiermeyer worked with South High and the State of Nebraska. Lopez got her discounted day care and got into school.
Once those hurdles were crossed, there were others: Like algebra. (Schiermeyer got Lopez tutoring.) Like an unreliable car. (On those days when Lopez's car didn't work, Schiermeyer drove Lopez to school.) Like a staggering $180 prescription when Brianna was sick. (Schiermeyer worked with a local agency to get the same drug for $20.)
“Sometimes if you don't know where to start or what question to ask, you can't get very far,” Schiermeyer said.
In May, Lopez became the first in her family to graduate from high school — a feat that brought her mother and two uncles to Omaha.
“She told me she was really proud,” Lopez said of her mother.
But that was Step 1. College is Step 2, and Schiermeyer is helping Lopez navigate that, too. Schiermeyer has accompanied Lopez on trips to Metropolitan Community College to meet with academic counselors, figure out financial aid, take an entrance exam and readjust her schedule when a job change meant she had to delay college by a few months. Lopez went from working nights at a nut factory to days at a South Omaha convenience store, La Esmeralda.
As for Brianna? She changed day cares because the state no longer pays for child care. Lopez said she now earns too much to qualify. But according to Schiermeyer, the bright-eyed, long-haired youngster who looks a lot like her mom is “doing well.”
Brianna has undergone language and development tests, including one administered at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Munroe-Meyer Institute. When tested in Spanish, “she scored great,” Schiermeyer said.
The hope is to eventually get her into a dual-language elementary school where she can excel in English and Spanish, Schiermeyer said.
Lopez wants better opportunities for Brianna and sees a future for herself in Omaha. Through the Building Bright Futures program, she has regular access to Schiermeyer until she turns 22.
“She helped me a lot,” Lopez said. “She still does.”
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