Andrea Avelar and her boyfriend dated for more than four years and for the better part of the relationship, they said they practiced safe sex. It was when they became more comfortable with each other that they said they became more lax with using protection.
Avelar learned she was pregnant as a junior at McClintock High School in Tempe and in September 2007, weeks after she started her senior year, her son, Zayden, was born.
"He's the love of my life," she said.
Even with that commitment to her child, Avelar was at risk of becoming another glaring statistic among teen mothers.
Two-thirds of teen moms drop out of high school and 80 percent end up on welfare, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS).
Avelar, however, chose a different path.
When a staff member of the Tempe Union High School District discovers one of its students is pregnant, like Avelar, they contact Bronwyn Paes, director of the Teen Aged Pregnancy and Parenting (TAPP) program located within the walls of Compadre High School in Tempe. Paes contacts and informs the student of the services offered and does so with a goal in mind: To keep her from dropping out of school.
"When their baby is born, some students have to drop out to take care of them," Paes said. "The longer they stay out, the harder it is to get back in school."
The list of what TAPP does is comprehensive. Instructors teach prenatal and postnatal care. They help ease the cost of baby supplies with their Apples Store and Baby Bucks program, which students earn for things like coming to school every day and getting good grades. They also offer day care for 24 children, which is made possible by a federally-funded program called Early Head Start.
But there isn't enough staff to meet the demand.
"We have a long waiting list for child care," said Paes, who works full time and has two part-time employees working for her. Everyone else is a volunteer. A positive Paes sees is that former students, including Avelar, who have gone through the program come back as volunteers.
"I tell them life happens," Avelar said. "Having a child forces them to be an adult. I tell them you do have control of right now and your future. You can't just sit back and complain about it."
Avelar, 20, believes that her message doesn't always get through teenage stubbornness.
"Now I can understand why my mom was so upset (when she found out)," she said. "I realize the little girl I used to be was crazy. Now that I'm a mom, I cannot imagine my son having sex at 13 or 14 years old (like I was)."
In 2006, Arizona ranked fifth highest in the nation in teen birth rate, about 60 per 1,000 teens, 42 percent higher than the national average, according to the ADHS. The report also claims that about 12 percent of teen pregnancies end in abortion.
Paes doesn't see this in her program.
"Probably 90 percent keep their baby, less than 1 percent give their baby up for adoption and the rest have abortions or miscarriages," she said. "Teenagers will not do adoption and they don't believe in aborting."
Paes and her staff and volunteers cannot talk about birth control, but they can go over the options for pregnant teens.
"We do option counseling," she said. "We cannot make a referral for abortion but we can assist in the grief process, and we definitely help with hooking them up with an adoption agency."
One student called it a responsibility to raise her baby.
"I didn't think about adoption or abortion," Kaitlyn Speaks, 15, said. "I just can't do that. I made a responsibility to do it so I have to stick with my responsibility to keep her."
Speaks, who has a 6-month old girl, wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to get picked up by the TAPP bus from her home in Ahwatukee Foothills. She is the first of 10 girls who are taken to and from Compadre every day.
"I come here because of day care; without it I couldn't finish school," she said. "I didn't have anyone to watch her."
Speaks said she plans to graduate a full year early and pursue a career as a pediatrician. She is one of 165 students from across the district utilizing TAPP's services. Every May the Beat the Odds ceremony takes place for the pregnant or teen moms and dads who graduate high school.
"We call it that because they beat the odds and didn't become a (dropout) statistic," Paes said. "Last year, 72 students graduated."
Paes, who also lives in Ahwatukee Foothills, draws on her 26 years of experience as a social worker. She worked in Gilbert for 13 years and before that worked with residents on an Indian reservation.
"We have to meet social and emotional needs of these students," she said. "Teenagers have it hard enough anyway. Then you deal with having to struggle with raising a baby. It's about how are you going to get them to concentrate and take care of those needs so they are better prepared to learn."
Some students at Compadre only attend school part time to help ease that burden. Martha Lopez, 19, is six months pregnant and working part time. She is engaged and plans to graduate at the end of the year.
"I wouldn't know as much as I do now if I hadn't come here," she said. "The hardest part of being pregnant is going to school. But I know I won't be able to get a better job if I don't graduate."
Lopez and Avelar both said there was a problem with their sexual education classes and that the people teaching it weren't relatable. Speaks said her school didn't offer it.
"If they had girls that had been through (teen pregnancy) talk more, then maybe it would have been different," Lopez said.
"I don't think they went about it the right way," Avelar said. "They came across awkward and gross. If they had someone we could relate to, that would have been better."
In many states, including Arizona, the health curriculum stresses abstinence-only sexual education. For the kids who are already engaging in sexual activity, there is little to no information about the different forms of protection, where to purchase it and how to use it effectively.
Kyrene School District adopted an abstinence-plus curriculum in 2009 and implemented it last year. Seventh- and eighth-grade students who opt-in to the program receive information about how condoms can prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of sexually-transmitted infections.
It remains to be seen what effect a more comprehensive sexual education curriculum would have on what Avelar said has become the social norm for teens in relationships: Unprotected sex.
"If you've been with a boyfriend for a long time, that's the line for being in a serious relationship," she said. "That's life now. Everyone has unprotected sex."
Paes said she sees a similar thing with her current students.
"I ask girls all the time if they were using protection and they ask, ‘What do you mean?'" she said. "I say, ‘Do you use a condom?' They say, ‘Well, I think he was using a condom.' It goes back to girls not knowing their bodies."
Paes said TAPP is always in need of volunteers and donations of diapers, wipes and clothing for the Apples Store.
For more information on the TAPP program and how to help, call (480) 752-3571.
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