Tianna Neale Horner and her son James. Photo by Michael Swan.

St. Martin’s Manor unlocks future for teen moms

By 
  • June 30, 2014

HAMILTON, ONT. - The future is a kind of massive cloud of the unknown, a mix of the probable and the impossible, that is constantly smothering the present. Every life has a little history, but lives are lived for, in and with the future.

The people who know this best are teenaged mothers. They have their tiny bit of history and they live with it. They have or had boyfriends (a few of them stick around). They have their children. But their children are not historical facts, fixed in the past. Those tiny children are themselves a future.

Which is why 16-year-old Haylee Davis has, over a period of mere months, learned to live for the future. The future she is living for is four-month-old Jaxxson Davis-Hodges. “Everything I do now is based on doing the best I can for him,” said the Grade 11 student studying at St. Martin’s Manor in Hamilton, Ont.Before she discovered she was pregnant, Davis was no raging success at Glendale Secondary School in Stoney Creek, Ont. It was the 15th school she had attended since her first day in Kindergarten and to say she was attending is a bit of a stretch. She missed more classes than she showed up for and felt vastly out of place in the student body.

She felt judgment in every stare and comment she received from teachers and students at Glendale. When she was kicked out after announcing her pregnancy, Davis didn’t put up a fight.

Instead, after weeks of couch-surfing while pregnant, she found her way to St. Martin’s Manor.

In 1958 the School Sisters of Notre Dame bought up an old motel on the edge of town and turned it into a classic, Catholic home for unwed mothers. Calling it a manor was probably an attempt to transcend the mixture of pity and disgust such places inspired. St. Martin’s Manor eventually found its way into the fold of Hamilton’s Catholic Family Services and evolved with a changing society. These days at the Manor adoption is an option but not inevitable or pushed for. Most of the students opt to be mothers to their children. St. Martin’s runs a classroom in partnership with the Hamilton Catholic District School Board. It has two teachers and one educational assistant who are experts in alerting young, frightened and very alone women to their possibilities. The little classroom for pregnant teens and young mothers is backed up by St. Charles Adult High School.

“They were actually trying to get me to go to school,” said a slightly incredulous Davis of the teachers at the Manor. She had never experienced such a high degree of concern about what she did or where she went.

Goals, the future, a notion of who she is and who she might become were all rather vague and easily ignored before she was pregnant.

“It kind of made me see the reality of things,” she said. “I only sort of realized ‘Oh my God, I’m pregnant’ when I got here.”

Davis is still a year away from graduating, but at this year’s graduation ceremony in the St. Martin’s Manor backyard she received the Suzy Das Neves Award for overcoming obstacles to forge hope. Davis is not blazing a new trail at St. Martin’s Manor. For 28 years young mothers have graduated high school at the Manor, many of them going on to nursing, early childhood education and other programs at Mohawk College. The commencement address for this year’s class of four graduates was delivered by 2010 St. Martin’s Manor graduate Cara Daisley. Daisley is in the last year of a nursing program at Mohawk, but her ambitions stretch even further. She is enrolled this coming fall in the undergraduate criminology department at Sir Wilfred Laurier University and she’s already thinking beyond an Honours BA to a Master’s degree.

The decisions young, single mothers face are not easy and not necessarily supported. At 17 Sydney Nelson was a nice, somewhat naive, middle-class, small-town girl from Paris, Ont., who had recently arrived in Hamilton. She was suffering through a bit of culture shock as she tried to fit in with the Grade 11 crowd at St. John de Brebeuf Catholic Secondary School. Culture shock was nothing compared to the shock she got when she found out she was pregnant. She went with her mother to a walk-in-clinic because her mom was feeling sick. Nelson also felt a headache coming on and asked for medication. But before prescribing anything, the clinic thought it best to test her. The nurse tentatively poked her head around the curtain and whispered “congratulations.” Nelson had to take a few more tests before she believed it. She had been on the pill and her boyfriend used a condom just for good measure.

The decision to keep the baby wasn’t really a decision as far as Nelson was concerned. Abortion was too horrible to contemplate.

“There was no question about that,” she said. “The baby did nothing to me. A child shouldn’t be punished for something it didn’t do… I could never do that to myself.”

Support at home was tentative.

“My mother was terrified,” she recalls.

She had to find a way to continue her education, so she Googled “teen pregnancy in Hamilton” and came up with St. Martin’s Manor. At first she lived with her boyfriend in her own apartment, but waking up morning after morning nauseous and then having to make her way to St. Martin’s Manor for school was just making her life harder. Once she moved into the Manor it took about 40 seconds to slip down from her room to class.

There’s a kind of runaway train aspect to teen pregnancy. It doesn’t matter how much time you think you need to be ready for motherhood. In nine months it starts. For Nelson those nine months gave her James Sakalauskas. Nelson had to learn the basics of motherhood — things she learned with and from her classmates at St. Martin’s Manor. “I didn’t know how to give a bottle, how many bottles to get. I didn’t even know how to change a diaper,” she said. As she accepted her diploma she told her fellow graduates, “You guys are like family for me.”

The support she’s received from the St. Martin’s Manor staff and the other young mothers has made motherhood more natural for Nelson. That support wasn’t just practical. At St. Martin’s Manor it was also spiritual.

“To have everyone in the room praying through everything, there’s nothing like it — just the energy in the room.”

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