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Coming into focus: Students in Vashon program for teen parents learn to take pictures, set goals

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2009 - On a Tuesday evening, Marcia Hayes-Harris stepped into the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library with four of her students and their babies.

For a moment, she looked around for the reason they'd all come. In the glass-walled room to the right, she expected to find it, but didn't.

They walked through the library, and there, in the middle of everything, sat a folding screen with pictures taken by the young women at Vashon High School's Parent/Infant Interaction Program. There were photos of babies, smiling, weeping, sleeping and in the arms of their mothers. Some journal entries were posted alongside the photos.

"Jamaya is very upset with everyone," Jazemine Eason wrote in multicolor under a photo of her fussy toddler. "But she is still an angel. Jamaya is a senior toddler. When I graduate, she is going to graduate from her class. Jamaya is one years old. She is my superstar."

The girls ran around the small display, looking for photos of their babies, shouting out when they spotted each other.

Soon, they went on to a reception with juice and fruit. Their children attended, as well as a few of the students' parents. They got certificates, cameras and something Hayes-Harris' thinks they never get enough of -- positive attention.

At some point, the girls asked her: This is all for us?

It is, she told them.

They still couldn't believe it.


For many of the students in the PIIP program, road blocks are daily -- family problems, no transportation, no money for transportation, the normal rage of teenage emotions, and young children of their own to care for.

"For them to make it through the school door is just amazing to me every morning," says Hayes-Harris, the PIIP program coordinator.

She has worked with PIIP for the last two years, but it was established more than 20 years ago and is currently the only program in the St. Louis School District that works with teen parents and their children in the schools. Young mothers and fathers must be enrolled in the school to participate. They bring their children to the free day-care center each day and are required to participate in the programs and eat lunch together. They're encouraged to spend time with their children, taught about nurturing, nutrition, discipline, and developmentally appropriate activities, among other things.

Typically, there are between 30 and 40 prenatal or parenting students in the program. That number has stayed consistent for the last few years. The program isn't about safe sex or pregnancy prevention. Instead, it's about working with young parents, giving them support, bus tickets, child care, whatever it takes to help them be good parents -- and to stay in school.

"For a lot of these girls, this is where they've been successful," Hayes-Harris says.

So last summer, when she was approached about working with the Public Policy Research Center Photography Project at UMSL, she said yes. Of course, she said. Anyone who wants to work with her students, of course.

The girls would learn how to use digital cameras, she was told.

"But I wasn't expecting what we got."


PPRC's Photography Project is based on the work of Wendy Ewald. While living on a reservation in the late 1960s, the photographer wanted to capture what she saw but feared exploiting her subjects. When children on the res approached her about using cameras, though, she found a solution. They would take pictures of their homes and their lives. They would tell their own stories.

In 2003, when Mel Watkin began working with PPRC, she proposed photo projects like those of Ewald's.

Watkin wanted to focus on groups that were revitalizing the community, preserving history and enriching the lives of the young and the old. Soon, community members took photos of the work of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, then of Gateway Greening. They worked with a juvenile detention center and a group with Alzheimer's.

Then, Watkin discovered PIIP after a project with a community revitalization group in the Jeff Vander Lou neighborhood.

In the fall of 2008, St. Louis photographer Lois Ingrum started the photography class at Vashon. Nine girls participated.

"It was a little struggle at first," Hayes-Harris says. "They don't like people coming here and telling them what they have to do."

"I think they were taken back that they had to do something different," Ingrum agrees.

But she kept coming, despite getting some attitude and having to push back a little, too.

Ingrum was there to teach the girls how to use digital cameras, how to frame and focus, capturing the best light and storing images. But she was also there to help them focus on their futures.

During the class, the girls had to keep journals. The topic: Where will I be in 10 years? For the first few weeks, the girls didn't know what to write.

"Most of them can't think to the next day," Hayes-Harris says.

It wasn't that they didn't have dreams, she says. They didn't have goals. But slowly, they identified what they wanted to do.

"My goal is I want to be a child-care worker because I like kids," says Deonshay Perkins, 17 and mom to Madison, 1.

Perkins plans on attending college and is currently in an internship program that's preparing her for a summer internship.

"You have a child," Ingrum stressed to the young women. "Now what? Let's keep it going."

They visualized what they wanted, Ingrum says, and "we then talked about how to get there."


At the exhibit's opening reception at the library, something new developed for the students present.

The girls stood up a little straighter.

Ingrum noticed. Watkin noticed. Hayes-Harris noticed.

"They were very surprised to see their work taken so seriously," Watkin says. "And it gave them a lot of pride."

The exhibit shows photos of teen moms with their children smiling sweetly and throwing fits. It shows what those moms see and want and hope for.

Sometimes, Hayes-Harris worries that other high school girls see her students with their cute babies and they don't really get it. It's hard. Not glamorous. She isn't sure which idea the photo exhibit and all the attention reinforces.

But for Ingrum, the message is simple. No one wants teenagers having babies. But when they do, life isn't over. They shouldn't be ignored. They should be supported and challenged to look at their lives and their futures.

Charlotte Dooley, 19, is a senior and mom to Dominique, almost 3. Dooley was one of the few students with her parents at the opening reception.

"My mom liked it," she says. "She came to the ceremony. She was proud. She thought it was pretty cool I was doing something."

The project's over now. The girls are learning how to read to their children. Hayes-Harris continues feeling amazed at seeing her students every day. They probably won't become professional photographers, she says. And they may not go on to accomplish the goals they set out in their journals.

But they learned how to do something. They were recognized for it.

And for now, she thinks, that's a start.

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