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Literature for Life: Help for teen moms

Photography courtesy of Literature for Life Image by: Photography courtesy of Literature for Life Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Literature for Life: Help for teen moms

It is May 2010. Mariatu Kamara sits nervously in the recreation room of an office building in downtown Toronto. "Hello, everybody," Mariatu, then 24, begins, her voice shaky.

"Today I am the most scared I have ever been." I am struck by her comment. In 1999, when she was only 12, Mariatu lost both of her hands to Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone.

That same year, she was raped by a village elder and conceived a child who died of malnutrition at a year old. I wonder what could frighten this young woman, knowing that she spent several years living in a refugee camp and begging on the streets of Freetown to earn money for food.

After that, Mariatu travelled alone, first to London, England, then to Canada when she was only 16. "I am so scared," Mariatu presses on, "because many of you have lived lives just like mine." Now I understand. Mariatu and I wrote her memoir, The Bite of the Mango, together, and today we are the special guests at an afternoon tea for the Toronto-based program Literature for Life.

Literature for Life
Almost all of the young women in the room are teen mothers who are living or have lived in one of the city's shelters. Many are from developing countries and lived as refugees before coming to Canada. They, like Mariatu, have survived abuse and rape.

And they have all read Mariatu's book. "That's my story," I hear several women whisper to one another after Mariatu, wearing designer jeans and dangling earrings, finally tells the women about her life.

One young woman, who is about seven months pregnant and dressed in a similar fashion to Mariatu, gives Mariatu a hug. "I'm from the Congo," she says, after introducing herself as Gracia. "You inspire me. If you can overcome what you did, so can I." She then adds, "Yours is the first book I have ever read."

Gracia Kabasele's sentiments echo those of many in the room. Literature for Life is a reading circle run out of seven women's shelters and social services centres in the Greater Toronto Area. Every month the teen mothers are given a book to read that has been chosen and paid for by the organization. And every week the young women meet in their respective shelters to read chapters from the book, work on writing assignments and talk.

Their conversations at first centre on the book, but slowly spill out to include discussions about pressing issues in their lives, such as domestic violence, rape and drug abuse. The highlight of the program is that, whenever possible, the authors themselves meet the women for afternoon tea.

Like Gracia, many of the women didn't take the time to read before they joined the program. Now, because they have been given books with story lines that resonate with their own experiences, they can't put them down. Violetta Hernandez, for instance, can't recall any book she completed prior to taking part in Literature for Life.

Reading for inspiration
In the past six months, however, the 18-year-old has read The Book of Negroes (author Lawrence Hill visited the program in May 2009); The Coldest Winter Ever, written by Sister Souljah, which is about a teenage girl living in a dysfunctional New York family; and White Lines, a story by Tracy Brown about a young woman battling drug addiction and prostitution.

"The characters may be from other countries and other times, but they struggled like I have," says Violetta. "Their pain is my pain. Through them, I fell in love with reading. I know what people say about girls like me when they see me," says Violetta in a soft voice, her eyes lowered and her hands folded on her lap.

"I'm careless. My life is ruined. I don't deserve to keep my baby. What these people don't know is that I feel this way too."

"One of the challenges in working with this population of women," says Jo Altilia, who founded Literature for Life, "is that they are very mistrustful of others. They all live in fear that they will be seen as unfit mothers and their babies will be taken from them if they talk about the struggles in their lives. That is the beauty of using literature as a tool to get the women to open up. They can talk about their issues through the characters in the stories."

Violetta found an outlet, for instance, when talking about Jada, the main character in the book White Lines. Jada finds herself living on the streets and being manipulated by men. "Her pimp preyed on her vulnerability," says Violetta. "She was hurting so much inside and she trusted. She wanted to believe. She would have given anything to be loved."
And that's how Violetta felt after giving birth to Noah. But not anymore. Jada helped Violetta see her own struggles. Taking part in Literature for Life changed her outlook. Now she not only reads but also writes, hoping one day to pen a novel like White Lines, chronicling her own life story of abuse and teen motherhood.

From 1993 to 1999, Jo Altilia, a former middle school teacher who is originally from Toronto, was living in Chicago. While there, she volunteered with a literature program in some of the city's roughest neighbourhoods.

Altilia, who had previously developed literacy programs for children, returned to Toronto in 2000 and recast the Chicago program to fit the needs of teen mothers. She then launched Literature for Life at the Massey Centre, which provides support to pregnant teens and young mothers.

Growing through word of mouth
Word spread, and within three years, the program was in eight shelters; by 2012, an estimated 2,000 teen mothers in Toronto had taken part. In general, most teen mothers in the program come from minority communities and have experienced abuse in both their families and their personal relationships. They often end up dropping out of school and leading lives in the low-paying workforce or on welfare.

But Literature for Life offers hope. Many of the young women have gone into the program with very low literacy skills – some unable to finish a simple young-adult novel – but have left reading adult novels. Most then return to finish high school, with their English marks tremendously improved. Some have enrolled in college and a few are now in university.

"Our literacy program works because we get the women reading books that they can see themselves in," says Altilia. "We always pick books that involve female characters who overcome great obstacles to lead more productive lives. These women need to be inspired to read and they become so by reading about the lives of other women like them."

Michelle Vogn, who was part of Literature for Life in the early years, could have been a welfare statistic. She was taken away from her mother when she was young and sent to live with her father. His second wife had five children; Michelle was abused by her and forced to stay home from school to help raise her half siblings. She ran away at 16, and at 19 gave birth to Devyn (pronounced "divine, for life is divine," she says.

Finding Literature for Life
While pregnant, Michelle lived in a shelter where Literature for Life was running. At first, she refused to go. But after Devyn was born, she no longer worked and wanted something to fill her days. "I was shocked at how all these unreachable girls suddenly became reachable through reading," says Michelle.

In 2002, Michelle and six other Literature for Life teenagers decided to publish what has become a quarterly magazine entitled Yo' Mama. The staff are all teen moms, and they decide on all the editorial content. Yo' Mama features articles about cheap places to take the family on weekends and holidays, inexpensive yet nutritious recipes, parenting, medical advice, and relationships, including how to leave abusive ones.

It's also a place where women in the program can publish their own fiction. This year the magazine will be circulated in shelters across Ontario, and in health and recreation centres that teen mothers might visit. Today Michelle is studying literature and psychology at the University of Toronto.

When she graduates, she wants to work in education, advocating for a new system that includes mentoring programs. She attributes her academic success to Literature for Life and the novels she read that inspired her to go back to school and make a change in her life.

"Like any mother, I wanted to leave a legacy for my child," she says. "But it wasn't until I took part in the program that I actually felt that was possible.

Reading resources
According to a report by the Canadian Council on Learning, a national nonprofit organization, nearly 48 percent of Canadian adults have low literacy skills. More than 11 million people in Canada struggle to understand everyday items such as newspapers, street signs and transit maps. These national organizations can help you find a literacy program in your area.

• ABC Life Literacy Canada: abclifeliteracy.ca/lookunderlearn

• Canadian Literacy and Learning Network: literacy.ca/learners

• Frontier College: frontiercollege.ca



This story was originally titled "It Starts With A Book" in the April 2013 issue.

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Literature for Life: Help for teen moms

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