Executive director of Fort Myers home for teenage mothers has surprising message — “I was a teen mom, too.”
Fort Myers News-Press Jan. 3, 2016 http://www.news-press.com/story/life/style/grandeur/2016/01/03/helping-teenage-mothers/78135780/
On the hand-painted wall in the cozy family room is a phrase that Karen Watson lives by: “Heal the Past, Live the Present, Dream the Future.” It’s a phrase that Karen tries to instill in the 10 girls and their babies that she takes care of at Our Mother’s Home in San Carlos Park.
Karen is executive director and she looks like someone in charge. Her clothes are fash-ionable, her hair and makeup are all in place. Her confidence and authority shine through. She’s well-educated and successful. Yet she has everything in common with the scared, troubled teenage mothers who arrive at the house. “I was a teen mom,” Karen, 51, says. “I walked across the stage at graduation with a big belly and I went to prom and grad night with a big belly.”
It’s this bond that turns her into a role model for the dozens of girls who have passed through the home during the past eight years that she has been there.
Karen started going to Edison (now Florida Southwestern State College) but quit after her baby was born. She got married and quickly divorced. Life was tough for the teen mom. “I was working two or three jobs,” she describes. “I decided I needed to go back to school.”
Karen worked hard to hurdle the obstacles of being a teen mother. She went back to college, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from Florida Gulf Coast University, and landed a job with the Lee County School District working with the exceptional student education program. Later, she worked with Head Start.
Karen began her career at Our Mother’s Home in 2007 as vice president. A year later, she became president and in 2011 took the helm as executive director. “I went to school to be a social worker to help parents to be good parents so you can break the cycle,” Karen says.
She knew the cycle well. Born in Georgia, Karen moved to Fort Myers as a toddler. She attended J. Colin English Elementary School, Suncoast Middle School and North Fort Myers High School. Challenged by the poverty and hopelessness around her, Karen knew she wanted to change that way of life for herself and for others. “They think I have it all together,” Karen says. “They see my car and how I dress, but not that I grew up in Jones Walker (public housing). I lived there, but I didn’t have to remain there.”
Karen’s story helps her connect with the teenagers who often think no one understands them, says one of the girls at Our Mother’s Home. “She is a role model because she told me she was a teen mom,” says Dory Bienaime. “And she was pregnant at a very young age and that makes us girls feel very comfortable. She makes us feel like we are not alone in this. And she is a mother and a wife and she has a master’s degree. She had two kids. If she can do it then I can do it too.”
Dory was a senior in high school and two months pregnant when she arrived at Our Mother’s Home. Now she has an 8-month-old daughter and is a student at Florida SouthWestern studying to be a dental hygienist.
Dory says Karen taught her mothering skills, budgeting, cooking and more. But she also pushed her to be a teenager. ”She helped me go to prom. She helped me go to grad bash,” Dory says. “She helped me get my driver’s permit.”
Karen says that’s her goal. She wants the girls to embrace the fun of being a teenager, while also learning the skills they need to be a good mother and provider. It’s not always easy. The girls can be difficult. They can be angry. Karen has to be the calm in their storm.
“I was the, like, the hardest girl and she never gave up,” Dory describes. “I used to call her Superwoman. If the girls are mean to her, she is still nice to them. She worked hard to get where she is now. And I am working hard going to school. I am doing what she did. I look up to her.”
Buy PhotoKaren Watson is the executive director of our Mother’s Home, a nonprofit that helps teen mothers and their children transition from fostercare and human trafficking. (Photo: Andrew West/grandeurmagazine.com)
Yet it’s not all sweetness and mentoring from Karen. She says she’s very tough, and needs to be with all the problems the girls arrive with. “Girls come here traumatized. Girls come here right out of human trafficking or bad situations,” Karen says. “I can relate to them when they are going through situations. I can give them structure. I will not be easily manipulated because of my background. I have been where they have been. They know they cannot manipulate me.”
Her job is also exhausting with long hours and stressful situations. Karen is usually at work by 8 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t leave until 12 hours later. She works on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays, too. She is always on call if a girl needs her. Karen says keeping qualified staff is also a significant challenge. With low pay and no benefits, she says the turnover is steady.
Despite the challenges, though, there are big rewards. “There’s a lot I love about being here,” she says. “Knowing that there are changes to be made and we can make change. Not just me, but we. We are planting seeds. Someone else might fertilize that seed and water it. We see them when they come back and say, ‘thank you.’ They care and appreciate what we have instilled in them. That’s what I love most about being here. We are changing our community and instilling values. A lot of them come here and school is not a priority and we see that change.”
Karen saw that change firsthand in Breianna B. who went from not valuing education to now studying education at Florida Southwestern State College. “When you first go there you think this is going to be stupid. I will hate it here, but I loved it there,” Breianna explains. “They end up helping you in the long run. They help you get on your feet.”
Breianna had a 6-month-old daughter when she arrived at Our Mother’s Home. She had few skills to survive as a teen mother. Now her daughter is 3 years-old and Breianna is living on her own and attending college. “Karen would tell us about when she was our age and she would tell us about how she would make those kinds of mistakes,” Breianna says. “She showed us that she made the mistakes, too. She was very helpful. When you had problems she would take you into her office and talk to you and help you.”
Karen not only helps one-on-one, she coordinates all the things the girls need to eventually be on their own. She works on nutrition, resume writing, parenting, teen outreach, financial advice, literacy, early childhood learning programs, mentoring programs and more. She oversees the girl’s chores that include cooking, cleaning and laundry. She goes with them to doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions. She forces them out of bed and onto the school bus and she takes care of them when they are sick. She can be extremely tough and then very tender. It’s all part of her effort to help them heal the past, live the present and dream the future.
“Because of their traumas and what has happened to them, they come here and heal,” Karen says about why the quote is so appropriate. “Once you walk through those doors you leave everything else behind — all the hurt and the pain. We are here to heal not just the physical, but the emotional. We want them to live the present because we want them to live the normal life of a teenager going to grad night, prom, football games, with our nurturing guidance here. And we are breaking their cycle so they can have a happy, healthy family. We want to let them have those experiences so they can dream for the future.”