In the middle of studying for final exams, 21-year-old Sheila Best recently got into a physical altercation with her daughter’s father. The incident caused her to move out of the home they shared.
That was one of her most difficult periods at Trinity Washington University, located in Northeast D.C., where she studied business administration and finance since 2014.
Instead of giving up, Best turned to her mentor. “Without her help and her being there for me, I don’t think I would have finished that semester strong,” Best told the AFRO.
Megan Bleil was matched as Best’s mentor in 2014, as part of Generation Hope — a nonprofit that bills itself as the only community-based nonprofit organization solely focused on college completion for teen parents in the D.C. area.
Generation Hope was founded in 2010 by Nicole Lewis. “Given my own experience as a teen mom in college, I was really interested in helping other teen parents get their degrees and complete their education,” Lewis told the AFRO.
Lewis became pregnant when she was a senior in high school in Virginia Beach, Va. “It was really hard for my parents and devastating for our family,” she said. “I ended up leaving home and living from place to place with my boyfriend at the time — sometimes that was on people’s couches, sometimes it was in the car in a high school parking lot.”
While some friends, teachers, and relatives told Lewis that her opportunity to attend college had ended with the birth of her daughter, she persisted and attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. After four years, she graduated with her bachelor’s of arts degree in English. She continued her education at George Mason University, where she obtained a master’s degree in public policy. While she attended school friends and family offered to watch her daughter. She also said she qualified for grants to afford daycare.
“College was really transformative, exposing me to different information, people, and experiences that I never would have been exposed to,” Lewis said. “Then obviously in terms of being able to get a job right out of college that paid well—I was able to put food on the table and a roof over my head and my daughter’s head.”
As she embarked on her career, Lewis also began volunteering for mentoring organizations in the D.C. metro area. She found that there wasn’t an organization focused solely on helping teen parents graduate from college. She also knew that less than two percent of teen parents graduate from college by the age of 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
“Generation Hope really came from a gap in services out there—I realized that I had the skills, life experience and that I could launch this organization,” Lewis said.
The crux of the program is mentorship. “Scholars” like Best are paired with “sponsors” like Bleil. They’re required to meet in person once per month and have check-ins every other week.
Best and Bleil have taken six-year-old Aria to the zoo and the movies several times. They’ve also met at restaurants “to catch up on what’s new, accomplishments, conflicts in school, and to see how [Bliel] can be of assistance,” said Best, who became pregnant as a freshman at Spingarn High School in Northeast D.C.
“Throughout the years, our relationship has gotten stronger because we got to know each other more and my daughter loves her so much,” Best continued.
Generation Hope also provides tutoring services, hosts family-friendly events and offers financial assistance to participants, who are both male and female parents.
Staffers also help with emergencies from transportation crises to domestic violence situations. “Our program staff is really there to help make sure they stay in school,” Lewis said.
So far, 30 Generation Hope scholars have graduated from college. Twenty-four more, including Best, are slated to graduate in Spring 2018.
“Every single degree is life changing and it means so much just to see one of our scholars walk across the graduation stage,” said Lewis.