Monday, December 9, 2013
A year ago, Chris Bilodeau, of Waterville, was just another tall, thin high school student with baggy shorts, a T-shirt and no job.
Teenage parents Melinda Pooler, 17, pauses while reading a textbook and working on a computer as Chris Bilodeau, 18, holds their 2-month-old daughter, Abigale, at their home in Waterville on Thursday.
Staff photo by David Leaming
Kevin Hardy is one of two males to graduate from the Teen Parent School program at the Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers in Waterville. With him is his infant daughter, Zoey, and fiancee, Wendy Joler, at Hardy's mother's Winslow residence on Friday.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
Bilodeau, then 17, split his time among an alternative schooling program offered at the Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers, his 16-year-old girlfriend, Melinda Pooler, and video games.
"I would sit in my house, turn the lights off, put a blanket on the window and play video games and stay up all night," he said.
Then Bilodeau's life changed one day late last summer. He was playing a violent role-playing video game set in post-apocalyptic Nevada called "Fallout: New Vegas." He remembers his exchange with Pooler when she entered the room.
"Oh, hi," he said. "I wasn't expecting you."
"I'm pregnant," she said.
He thought she might be playing a joke.
"Are you kidding?" he asked.
That's when she started to cry.
Bilodeau set his video game controller down, a lot closer to adulthood than he had been when he picked it up.
Teen pregnancy rates are relatively low in Maine, but statistics show young fathers such as Bilodeau — about 1.7 percent of the total national male teen population — are facing a long, upward battle to provide for their children.
A variety of research studies in the past 20 years have suggested that teen fathers tend to have lower incomes, less education and larger families than those who have children later in life.
The number of teen parents in Maine is shrinking, according to Nancy Audet, communications director, Family Planning Association of Maine. In 2007, the most recent year on record, 43 of every 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 got pregnant, far below the national rate of 68 per 1,000, which itself has declined by about a third since the 1990s.
This month, weeks before Father's Day, Bilodeau became one of the first male graduates of a program designed to help teen parents navigate the twin challenges of parenthood and adolescence.
Bilodeau and a classmate retain many of the signs of their youth, but they said they are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful fathers.
Teen Parent Program
One sign of Bilodeau's efforts to be a good father is his graduation this month from a Teen Parent School program at the Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers in Waterville.
The parent school helped guide him from typical teen experiences such as gaming and sports to a world of pelvic floor exercises, prenatal vitamins and, of course, diapers.
Bilodeau and Kevin Hardy, 19, of Winslow, joined their female classmates to learn how to best tackle the challenges before them — day care services, a wailing infant in the middle of the night, and balancing a new baby with a new job.
Jana Burgoyne, a parenting instructor at the school, said the two have shouldered a responsibility that others often drop.
"Usually, to be honest, the teen dads just are not as involved," she said.
About 40 children attend classes at the children's home, which provides an alternative path to a high school diploma from Waterville Senior High School.
Angie Woodhead, director of the parent school, is a little bit of everything — social worker, mentor, cheerleader and friend — to the students, whom she often refers to as "honey." Around her, they are as relaxed and casual as they might be around their own families.
She said the students need a different path to overcome barriers. For some, the barrier is being a new parent; while others struggle with unaddressed mental health issues, social problems at home or substance abuse.
Woodhead said Hardy and Bilodeau impressed her by becoming the first males to graduate from the parenting school in 39 years, which she said left some at the program "pretty darn surprised by these guys."
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Kevin Hardy with his infant daughter, Zoey, on Friday.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans