Brittany Lucas, 16, works in the kitchen at Choices for Youth. Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram
Brittany Lucas dropped out of school at age 13.
At age 14 she got pregnant.
At age 15, she gave birth to a baby girl.
Brittany is now 16.
Her daughter Destiny is nine months old.
Brittany's cheeks flush when she's encouraged to smile when having her picture taken, slicing a large ham that she's helped prepare to feed dozens of youth at Choices for Youth (Choices).
Like most youth with low self-esteem, Brittany doesn't like to smile.
However, when the subject turns to her baby, the slender teen cannot control her facial features.
"She's got eight teeth. She crawls around. She's says, 'Mom. Dad. Hi. Yes. No.' She claps her hands and she calls out to the cat, 'pssssssss' like that. She's a really, really, really happy baby, isn't she Jeannie?" Brittany says, looking to Choices community youth outreach worker, Jeannie Piercey, for reassurance.
Piercey returns Brittany's smile and nods in agreement.
Brittany has completed several programs at Choices including its JumpStart 10-week pre-employment pilot program.
Run out of George Street United Church, the program, recently wrapped up after teaching eight young people valuable life and culinary skills.
It also helped them learn to express themselves creatively.
The stipend-based program started from a need in the community to provide an employment option for youth that would meet them "where they are," says Cathy Whelan, Choices co-ordinator of organizational development.
"There are some great employment programs for youth that exist in the community, but for many of the youth we work with at Choices, those programs are not an option - their lives are too street-entrenched to meet the requirements of the programs."
They need a more flexible approach with more individualized supports, Whelan says.
The JumpStart program gives youth an opportunity to get involved in something productive and gives them a starting point where they can begin to plan for their future, Whelan says.
That future could include returning to school or finding full-time employment, or even simply preparing them for a longer, more intensive employment programs in the community, she says.
Service Canada and the provincial government's Department of Human Resources, Labour and Employment funded the JumpStart program.
In addition to a weekly stipend of $105, participants received a post-secondary tuition voucher when they completed the program, says Piercey, who co-ordinated JumpStart.
"Part of our mandate was to prepare meals in the church's commercial kitchen and we transported them here to Choices and served up to 140 young people a day. We did that for three days each week," Piercey says.
It's estimated that the group prepared and served more than 800 meals during the 10-week program.
They also ran a soup kitchen at the church one Friday morning.
Seeing so many people line up for food opened Brittany's eyes to the need in her community.
"We had a load of people that needed us that day to give them a meal," she says.
Brittany says no matter what program she's been involved with at Choices, the staff always makes her feel good about herself.
"They value you as a person and when you come here, everybody is treated equally," she says.
In addition to the life skills they gained during the program, the young people also produced a booklet of their poetry, recipes and artwork.
Newfoundland Power has come onboard and is printing copies of the booklet which will be sold for a nominal fee at Choices.
Brittany's colourful drawing, which includes the first names of the people who participated in the program, is on the back cover of the booklet.
Brittany lives with her baby and boyfriend.
She's grateful to her grandmother and her Aunt Kelly who help care for Destiny while she's trying to get her life back on track.
"My grandmother comes and gets Destiny in the mornings and Jeannie gave us a bus pass. So I get the bus here and then get the bus back home," she says.
Piercey says Brittany did extremely well in the JumpStart program.
"She had 100 per cent attendance in all 10 weeks and that's just amazing," Piercey says.
Although the program has been completed, Brittany still receives a nominal stipend for preparing meals for youth at Choices.
"It's only a little bit of money that you get for doing this but it makes you feel good when you leave, because you know all these people got fed because you got up in the morning and came here," she says.
Brittany's hope is that she'll be accepted into the Brother T.I. Murphy Centre in January.
Whelan says the JumpStart program has been very successful and should be continued.
"We're currently looking for longer-term funding for the program through Heath Canada's Drug Strategy, but are still waiting on a response."
Brittany hopes the funding will come through.
"I never realized how important an education was until I got pregnant. Now, I'm telling everyone how important it is. And that's why I'm going back (to school). I want to set a good example for Destiny and give her the best life she could possibly have."