URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — The teen years can be tough with all the uncertainty and change that comes with growing into a young adult. Imagine adding the pressure of parenthood to that.
For some teen moms in Central Illinois, the journey is a little bit easier thanks to one remarkable woman.
On most Thursday nights, you can find Erin Watson at CU Church in Urbana getting everything ready to go for her girls.
“We meet them right where they’re at, and we’re there for them through the good and the bad,” says Erin.
She has always been there for more than 20 years. Rewind to 2001.
Erin was in high school at the time and had just started working with teen moms. Larcina and her son, ray, was one one the first families she ever worked with.”
“I was asked by my youth pastor to volunteer as a babysitter for a teen mom organization, and that kind of changed the trajectory of my life,” explains Erin.
The rest is history. She left Urbana and headed to Florida for college where she continued volunteering. That is where she first got involved with YoungLives.
It is a faith-based organization specifically for teen moms. For Erin, it was never just about logging some service hours.
When she moved back home in 2008, YoungLives of Champaign County was born thanks to Erin. This became her passion.
Today, hundreds of mothers have become apart of this tight-knit group.
“Erin is just one of those people that was born to serve this group of women,” says YoungLives mentor Megan Wertz.
Many of the teen mothers they work with feel the same.
“It has just helped me tremendously,” says 20-year-old Ari Hopkins.
She gave birth to her daughter, Azaria, at 16-years-old and has been a part of this group ever since. This is her last year participating.
“If it wasn’t for Erin, a lot of the stuff that we have going on right now wouldn’t be going on,” explains Ari.
But Erin says it’s not a one-woman show. She has grown a team of mentors over the years who’ve become the heartbeat of the ministry.
“As moms in general, we just have that common thread,” says Megan. “No matter how old you are, you just have a heart for other mothers.”
Mentors like Megan meet with the moms weekly. They share a meal together. If a mom does not have a ride there, they pick them up.
“They get a time to themselves to either learn a life skill, to be encouraged by word, and just really have a time to relax and recuperate,” says Erin.
During that time, the kids get to play and have fun together in the gym. Ari says her daughter looks forward to it every week.
“I think it has helped her connect with other kids. When she walks through the door, she’s ready to run through the gym,” says Ari.
That connection with others for both baby and mom is crucial. Ari says being a teen mom can often feel lonely.
“Postpartum is a really big thing for young mothers. We get judged because we are young,” says Ari. “And that can be really hard on us because we don’t feel like we belong.”
But Younglives is home. It is a safe, reliable place.
The goal is to help them overcome any barriers they may face: education, employment, food and housing insecurity.
It goes far beyond the necessities, too.
Erin, the mentors, moms, and kids go to a summer camp in Michigan every year. It is a week of outdoor adventures.
They also put on a prom, which is something many of the moms did not have to chance to go to.
All if it is an experience Erin says she would not change for the world.
“I just count these girls just as dear friends,” says Erin.
And in some cases, they have become family.
Remember baby ray? He is all grown up now, and Erin is his godmother.
She says the strength and resiliency of all the young mothers she has over the years have taught her some much.
“They are very hardworking women. They are wonderful moms,” says Erin. “I learn a lot from them, and as a mother myself, I grow and learn as I’m mothering my son alongside them.”
For women interested in becoming a YoungLives Mentor, email Erin at Elgrace321@gmail.com.