Bronwyn Paes, director of the Tempe Union High School District’s Teen-Aged Pregnancy and Parenting program, knows what it means to overcome adversity with resilience.
Those are words the Ahwatukee woman uses to describe the teenage students in her program who suddenly find themselves pregnant yet persevere to continue their education and graduate with their high school diploma.
Paes, too, has persevered, especially following the sudden passing of her 60-year-old husband three years ago on Mother’s Day morning, leaving her a widow with three daughters from a previous marriage.
“He had just survived and recovered from prostate cancer,” she said of her deceased husband, Ted Marshall.
“I’m now working on redefining my life,” she said.
To assist in that redefinition, Paes this month retired as TAPP’s director after serving in that capacity for 11 years.
It is a step toward a three-year-plan she has constructed to help her find her way again. It is a well-thought-out plan fitting for the 56-year-old woman who’s spent 35 years as a social worker – the last 25 in public schools.
“While I loved all my jobs – a runaway shelter in New Orleans to shelter work on the Gila River Reservation with abused native children to elementary school work with Gilbert Public Schools – my career in TAPP has probably been the most rewarding,” she said.
She recalled she had no clear understanding of what the role at TAPP would entail, noting, “ It has evolved over the years, and while very rewarding, it has challenged me both personally and professionally.”
“I know that teen pregnancy does not discriminate and can happen to anyone regardless of race, color, religion, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.”
Of the 23 girls who graduated from the program with their high school diplomas two weeks ago, five were from Ahwatukee.
Paes admitted seeing the challenges the young women faced caused her occasional angst with her own three daughters.
“Raising daughters there were times when I was hyper-vigilant with them and probably embarrassed them in front of their friends with my conversations and reality checks about having an unplanned pregnancy at a young age. On the other side of that I know many of their friends knew they could talk to me about their sexual health.”
She said she considers herself “one of those rare people whose passion and profession intercept. And directing TAPP these past 11 years has drawn on that and amplified it.
“The TAPP program showed me the deepest examples of adversity and resilience. These young women’s lives are changed forever. Parenting a baby when they are children themselves is beyond overwhelming. The tenacity and courage to overcome obstacles leaves me speechless,” she explained.
“What brings me great joy is to work with students who barely have their basic needs met and to be able to guide them and watch them grow into successful young adults. Dealing with poverty, substandard housing, minimal food, lack of education and limited resources for day-to-day living and yet still come to school every day, “ she said, adding:
“To see them discover their potential, believe in themselves and move on to not only a high school diploma but also college is the ultimate satisfaction.”
Located at Compadre Academy in Tempe, a special wing designed and built in 2001, the 44-year-old TAPP program offers teens the ability to earn credits, some specially designed. Childcare is provided for babies two weeks to 3 years of age. Twenty-six babies were in child care this school year.
Nationally, 50 to 60 percent of teens who become pregnant drop out of school. In contrast, only about 9 percent of pregnant and parenting teens leave TAPP.
The TAPP program provides students with a system of support and education, which includes individual case management, child birth education, pregnancy and parenting classes, a mentoring program, support groups, transportation and child care. In addition to serving as a drop-out prevention program, TAPP works to decrease teen pregnancy and repeated pregnancy.
The infants room, formerly run by Early Head Start, was saved from extinction four years ago by Paes, who earned a child care director certification after convincing the school district it was crucial for students to be able to return to school with their babies after their two-week maternity leave.
At the May 17 “Beat the Odds” Celebration held at Compadre, 23 TAPP students from all seven Tempe Union High School District high schools were feted.
Each student – some with their babies, others pregnant – was personally recognized by district Superintendent Kenneth Baca and Compadre principal Ed Flores, both of whom are also leaving TUHSD this year.
TAPP has served more than 1,639 students in the last 11 years.
“The TAPP program helps break the cycle. I love knowing I contributed to helping young people see the unlimited opportunities and explore their possibilities. My fondest memories will be those days when a former student comes back and shares their current life and successes large and small,” Paes said.
Now, Paes’ two oldest daughters, Brenna and Bronte, have earned masters degrees, and her youngest daughter, Braelyn, is a newly minted Desert Vista High School graduate heading this fall to Northern Arizona University.
Paes said she decided to set plans in motion for new adventures.
“I love being a social worker. There are so many things that I would still like to do and it will be fun to sort that out,” she said. “But I am also tired. I am ready to slow down and do some hiking, traveling and explore new places and meet more people. Someone once asked me what I collect, and after much thought my response was ‘people.’ I am looking forward to sharing my gifts and graces beyond Tempe Union High School District and the TAPP program.”
Toward that end, Paes drafted her three-year plan. “I have my 25 years, and I decided not to stay five more years because my life is changing,” said Paes, who has lived in Ahwatukee since 1988.
Step one in the Paes post-retirement plan is to “Stay put and work part-time” with Crisis Preparation and Recovery in Phoenix. There, she will continue drawing on her social work background, visiting and counseling the elderly in their homes and in nursing homes.
She will also continue her part-time work with Arizona State University as an academic associate which she will continue to do in her year-two phase: roaming the U.S. in a travel trailer with her Australian sheep dog Bentley.
“We’re going to hit the road and travel places and visit people,” said Paes.
Year three? Fulfilling a vision she and her husband had before his sudden departure: “I want to work in a village, in a rural area as a social worker. This was a plan he and I had, and now there’s no reason I can’t do it by myself.”
After those three years, she will return to Ahwatukee.
“The girls will all be out of school, and I can spend time with my mother Dorlea Jenkins. She’s 78 now and also lives in Ahwatukee.”
She recalls how her years with TAPP were often emotionally draining, and yet her family was there for her. They were always understanding and provided support when I was just depleted and had nothing left for them at the end of the day. I always tried to be the best mom I could be, but I know there were times when they needed more,” she said.
“All three of my daughters are strong, independent, courageous young women. We faced adversity as a family with a divorce, followed by the sudden death of their stepfather. They are resilient. I believe I have been a positive role model to them and demonstrated the value of a strong work ethic combined with compassion and service to others.”
The one area she wishes she could have rallied more support for at TAPP remains a concern.
“There is a huge need for foster parents for teens with a baby. It is so sad when they get separated and put into different shelters or homes,” she said.
“Many years before my husband died, we were exploring the option of becoming foster parents for this population. My daughters were on board. Life changes and that is one goal that didn’t come to be.”