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Mothers in training

It took nine months to make Meagan Christina Perez, all 19 inches, 7 pounds and 2 ounces of her. It took about two months to remake the life of her 18-year-old mother, Lucy Rivera.

Giving birth was a breeze compared to the pressure of learning how to become an adult. Lucy had little choice.

Her child was conceived in Puerto Rico, in a moment so emotionally painful she won't even talk about it. Ask her who the father is and Lucy's chin will drop, her eyes will flick nervously away and she'll simply shake her head softly.

"When I knew I was pregnant, I didn't want to be near my baby's father," she said. All she'll tell about the man is his age: 37.

She kept her pregnancy a secret even from her mother. "I was getting crazy."

Lucy was five months pregnant when she left home in the small town of Rio Grande. She had no husband, no high school diploma and no job. She sought refuge with her 35-year-old half-sister in Tampa.

It was with nothing more than a small suitcase, a well-advanced pregnancy and a yearning to straighten out her life, that Lucy came to Alpha "A Beginning" of Tampa Inc.

Young, pregnant and alone

Since 1982, Alpha House, as it's known, has served as the only licensed maternity home in Hillsborough County. Its purpose is simple: help women get through crisis pregnancies.

That means helping the women, 95 percent of whom are teen-agers, give birth to healthy babies and at the same time teach how to attain autonomy over their lives.

"The first girl who came was 17, pregnant and alone," said Rosalie Hennessey, a nun and the executive director of the program since 1982. "The profile hasn't changed that much since."

Many of the women have been sexually and physically abused. They come from broken homes, the streets, sometimes even detention centers.

Though the vast majority are poor, some of the women are financially well off. For them, Alpha is a temporary refuge during a period that they want neither to repeat nor to remember.

During the past four years, Hennessey said, the trend has been away from the "nice girl" toward the drug-addicted, abused and chronically pregnant woman.

The youngest girl at Alpha now is 14. She has been in the custody of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services since she was 3.

"You just want to give her milk and cookies when she comes home from school," Hennessey said, quoting one of the in-house counselors.

At any given time, 20 young women live at Alpha's residence at 208 S Tampania Ave. They attend daily counseling sessions, learn health and hygiene, parenting skills and career planning.

If they choose to put their children up for adoption, a choice about 40 percent of the women make, counselors guide them through the process.

Whether they keep the babies or put them up for adoption, the women leave the residence after they give birth. To ensure they don't backslide, there is a six-month follow-up program.

Hundreds more women use Alpha's other programs, such as free pregnancy testing, 24-hour crisis line, free maternity and baby clothes and referral service.

More than 16,000 women have been helped by Alpha House in some way or other since 1982.

The program has succeeded to a remarkable degree.

Nationally, about 85 percent of pregnant teen-agers become pregnant again within two years, Hennessey said. The rate for women who have gone through the Alpha program is about 7 percent, she said.

That means fewer sick babies born to welfare mothers, draining public money as they cling to life in a hospital incubator.

Without such a program, Hennessey imagines a desperate existence for these women. "They would be dooming themselves to the welfare system."

Unlearning bad habits

For about two months, Lucy was one of 20 women living at Alpha House.

The routine is rigorous _ a change from her experience the last time she lived in Tampa. When she was 15 she started classes at Jefferson High School. At least that was the plan.

But as she said, "Everything was okay until I had friends. When they said, "Let's go skip class,' I never said no."

"I was some kind of brat. Always fighting. Always screaming," said Lucy, a twin and the youngest of 10 children.

There are no spoiled children at Alpha House. Lucy had to be awake before 7 a.m. to clean her room. Lucy would take classes for three hours during the morning in preparation for her high school equivalency tests.

In the afternoon, Lucy and the other young women would prop themselves up in chairs to learn basic skills about coping as a mother, or simply as an adult. Simple, but important stuff, such as how to tell when a baby is crying for no good reason and when it's crying because it's sick.

The point, Hennessey said, is to challenge the women. "They need to know they can get ahead. They don't believe in themselves."

Lucy has gotten the point. She has plans now.

"I want to be a chef," she said. "I want to do culinary arts all over the world."

"Or be a secretary," she hedges.

Basically, she doesn't want to go back to the listless life she left behind. "If I go back, I won't do anything."

She is confident that she passed the two days of tests she took just a week before she went into labor. Math and reading comprehension was a cinch. Social studies was a mystery.

"They asked about Thomas Jefferson and what he said in 19 something," Lucy shrugs, seemingly unaware this might not be a good sign. "I said, "Well, I don't even know Thomas Jefferson.'

"

Her baby will be five weeks old when Lucy learns whether she is a high school graduate.

To hear her talk about her life and to see her now, it would seem her whole demeanor has changed.

Withdrawn and frightened when she arrived at Alpha, she became something of an elder stateswoman, capable of orchestrating reconciliations between mothers and their pregnant daughters.

In the delivery room, she was just as composed.

"I didn't scream or cry," she said a day afterward. "I was sleeping the whole time. Every time I had a contraction I would wake up."

"I'd push three times and then I'd fall asleep and the doctor would say, "Hey, wake up!"'

The baby was born just before 5:30 a.m. on May 14.

Meagan Christina Perez (the baby has Lucy's stepfather's last name) is blissfully quiet, for a newborn. She sleeps without regard for day and night.

Occasionally, as she lies in her mother's lap, her hands reach from under the swaddling blanket to clutch the world, all of which is as large and near as her mother.

And Lucy bends down to kiss her baby on the head.

"This is beautiful," she said. "After all the pain. It doesn't matter."

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