Sue Belski, the Program Director at Salem High School's Children's Friend and Family Services Teen Parent Program, is a combination mentor, counselor and sounding board to many of the school's teenage parents.
"I think a lot of people make the assumption that once you become a parent you reach this level of maturity, which isn't true," Belski said. "They're still adolescents, and they're just like their peers in terms of not understanding what the real world is. They still need to be parented themselves."
The Teen Parent Program creates a safe haven for students and gives them a fighting chance at beating the gloomy prospects facing most teen parents. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the dropout rate for high school mothers is a staggering 60 percent, compared to just 5.6 percent for those without children.
But Stephanie triumphantly beat the odds. Earlier this month, she walked across the stage at Salem High and received her diploma, as her proud mother and gurgling little Melanie watched.
Milagros has changed as well, her initial anger quickly giving way to grandmotherly adoration. "When I see my granddaughter...and she is smiling, I can see God smiling to me," she said.
For Stephanie, the diploma represents lessons learned both inside and outside the classroom.
"Having my daughter has brought me nothing but joy, but the journey to achieve my goals has been a difficult one," she explained. "A year and a half ago I did not believe I'd be in this place but I think she was brought here for many reasons. I think she's here to better me as a person. I was not on track, and now I am. I feel that my daughter is my motivation and she made me who I am today."
Inspired by her daughter, Stephanie now plans to attend a community college and become a pediatric nurse.
In spite of her success, Stephanie still has a few words of caution for other young girls: "Be smart. That one moment is just a moment. A kid is a lifetime."