When Bellmead resident Charity Hernandez found out she was pregnant, her first thought was now she had someone who would love her forever.

But at 15, she also thought the news would devastate her father. Too scared to speak the words, she wrote him a letter to break the news instead, she said.

Her father cried and told her everything would be OK. They would find a way to get through it. The next morning, her father and stepmother told her not to tell anyone else. They were going to take her to have an abortion, she said.

“I told my dad, ‘You always taught me that when we made mistakes, you suck it up and work through it.’ He said, ‘This is different,’ ” Hernandez said. “At the time, I was very angry with him, and even now as a parent, I don’t believe in abortion, but I think no matter how strong your beliefs are, you get tested. … When you’re a kid, you have this tunnel vision. You can only see right in front of you, but I’m assuming my parents could see the whole picture that I couldn’t see.”

She wanted to have a child, so Hernandez moved in with her biological mother for the start of what would turn into a tumultuous first five years of her son’s life, she said. She bounced from place to place and struggling to give infant Raymundo Delgado her best, she said.

“I felt like I betrayed my dad in that moment, but I went into mom mode,” Hernandez said. “It didn’t matter what relationship my mom and I had, I was going to do whatever it took to survive for me and my baby.”

Though Hernadez’s story started almost 20 years ago, it mirrors McLennan County’s high teen pregnancy rate, local nonprofit leaders said.

Texas has the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States, despite decreases in the rate in the past 20 years, according to a report by the 1,000 Feathers consulting firm commissioned by the Waco Foundation with support from Prosper Waco and the SmartBabies Initiative.

The county’s 2014 rate of 38.8 teen pregnancies per 1,000 females age 15-19 is even higher than the state’s rate of 36.3. The national rate is 24.2, according to the report, titled “The Path Forward: Preventing Teen Pregnancy in Greater Waco.” On the local, state and national levels, rates are higher among black and Hispanic teens than among all teens.

“The challenge here in Waco, that is not completely dissimilar than other parts of the country but amplified a little bit here, is there are some real equity issues in terms of health outcomes,” 1,000 Feathers President Forrest Alton said. “In Waco, we have failed our youth of color. African American and Hispanic youth have teen birth rates significantly higher than their white peers. The community is going to have to be willing to say that out loud and say, ‘We really need to have this conversation about teen pregnancy with a health equity lens.”

Using a scale based on risk factors including health care access and education, poverty and employment levels, the groups involved in the report identified Waco ZIP codes where researchers believe focused efforts would have the most impact.

The areas the group identified also overlap with the health district’s focus area in the 76704, 76705, 76706 and 76707 ZIP codes, he said. More than half of the area’s teen births come from residents of those four ZIP codes, according to the report.

“This wasn’t a blaming or shaming exercise. It was, ‘If we’re going to identify priority areas, how could we do that?’ This was one attempt,” Alton said.

Hernandez, who grew up in the area and lives in 76705, knows the challenges of being in a high-risk neighborhood all too well, she said. The time with her mother was short-lived, and she soon moved in with her boyfriend’s family.

Though her new family was good to her, the living situation was strained by finances and two children trying hard to be adults, she said.

“You know how when you’re pregnant, you have cravings and you can eat whatever you want? I didn’t have that luxury. We were always struggling to pay bills,” Hernandez said. “When Raymundo came home, we didn’t have light. He came home from the hospital, and we had had our bills cut off. No water sometimes, and no lights.

“To have your baby be without light or water, it’s not a fun feeling, and I was too prideful to tell my dad I was failing in that area. I don’t think he ever knew how bad it was, because I had never had to worry about bills, or our lights or our water being cut off when I was with my parents.”

Hernandez split with Raymundo’s father and eventually returned to her father’s home. She managed to find her own apartment, and when bills were tight, her father would step in to help. Only when her father died suddenly did Hernandez realize how hard being a teen mother was, she said. Her son was 3 at the time, and her father’s death sent her into a spiral, she said.

“This was my turning point,” Hernandez said. “When he passed away, I was only 18. You think you’re an adult, but you’re really not. I couldn’t even figure things out. I remember one day picking up my son from daycare. … I was thinking how I was going to hit this big tree. I wanted to hit it. I wanted to die, I didn’t want to be here any longer. I was tired, tired of my lifestyle, tired of struggling.

“(That’s when) Reymundo reached out to me, and he said, ‘Momma, I love you,’ and God used him in that moment. … When he said that, something in me clicked and I said, I have to survive. I have to survive for him and I have to give him better. I have to make things right.”

Since 2011, the SmartBabies Initiative has worked in Waco to address teen pregnancy through leadership groups, multiple reports and studies, and the funding of several school and community-based programs, according to the report.

And when Prosper Waco started in 2015, the nonprofit helped put an even greater focus on the issue. While groundwork has been laid, the efforts haven’t been enough to create long-term change, Alton said. The study was a look at the area at 10,000 feet, and the next step is to find ways to dive into some of the neighborhoods, he said.

Hernandez, now a successful mother to seven and wife to a supportive husband, has recently started to work with the Waco Foundation as a mentor to teen moms in La Vega Independent School District by sharing her story.

While supporting teen mothers is important, so is prevention, SmartBabies Initiative Director Ashley Weaver said. Weaver watched Hernandez share her story with students.

“There are a lot challenges with becoming a young mom, and there are supports you have on the other side of that, but who is supporting you to prevent in the first place?” Weaver said. “That’s where the work we’re doing and her story really align.”

Specific to Waco, researchers were interested in access to health care, including the availability of transportation, Alton said.

“The community itself has to understand and support the layering of all these things. That’s really what’s going to move the needle and make a difference,” Waco Foundation spokesperson Natalie Kelinske said.

Neighborhood communities don’t always want someone from the outside telling them what’s wrong, so the complex issue has to be tackled with local energy and philanthropy, Alton said. The outpouring of support he has seen so far in Waco isn’t happening anywhere else, he said.

Hernandez’s oldest son graduated from Rapoport Academy early and is now in the U.S. Navy. She couldn’t be more proud, she said. She said she hopes that with the recent study, Greater Waco can finally begin the active dialogue needed to help other teens from repeating her story, she said.

“(Raymundo) could’ve been a statistic. He’s not supposed to be where he is right now. He’s supposed to be doing drugs, in the street or have a girl pregnant, not graduating and working, and he’s becoming somebody,” Hernandez said. “He’s making a mark on this world. He’s not just in the service, he’s a nuclear engineer, and that’s huge.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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