As teen pregnancy rates fall across the country, Grand Traverse County is struggling to bring them down. A new program in Traverse City may help; it’s restructured and expanded to include dads.
Austin Duff is 15 years old and his son is about to turn one. Duff's girlfriend got pregnant on accident.
“When I found out, I didn’t know what to do or say,” Duff says. “I didn’t freak out. I didn’t question it. I just kind of did it. I still sometimes can’t come to realization with it.”
Even though Duff didn’t plan on being a father so young, he’s happy. He says he felt his paternal instinct kick in early.
“When he went to go get circumsized and I heard him crying and screaming, I kind of just felt a lot of rage. Like my blood ran hot because I heard him crying and screaming in pain,” he says.
Duff lives with his girlfriend's family in Buckley. There are nine of them in the house right now. The rooms are packed so he sleeps in the basement. It’s bitterly cold down there but he says it’s okay once the space heater kicks in.
Duff says the family has made it through some tough times, like when his girlfriend’s federal assistance lapsed and they were out hundreds of dollars in groceries. But he says they made it with the help of a local food pantry.
“Usually I’ll take a duffle bag in there to fill it up for a week or two,” Duff says. “They’ll give me diapers, and I’ll pick out what food I need for the house like cereal, milk, eggs, canned food.”
That food pantry is operated by "Generations Ahead," a teen parenting program at Traverse City High School where Duff goes to school. For decades, a similar program was run by the Women’s Resource Center and served five counties. But last fall it narrowed its focus to Grand Traverse County and opened up to dads.
Generations Ahead Director Marjie Rich says accidental pregnancies are common in rural areas. She says teens with transportation issues, like not having a license or a working car, are more likely to lapse on birth control.
“If you ask them what happened they’ll say my pills ran out. I needed to get them re-prescribed,” Rich says.
She says providing simple goods can make a huge difference for struggling parents, and helps them stay in school.
“They’re just so bogged down just maintaining their daily life that they have little opportunity or time in their lives to think about what’s next," Rich says. “What am I motivated to do? What would sort of be my ideal job?”
That’s been the case for Austin Duff. He explored different career options and narrowed in on one.
“And then I started getting interested in welding, because that’s a form of art and it pays really good money,” Duff says. “I went to the Career Tech Center and went and studied what they do and how it all works.”
In the mid-afternoon at Duff’s house, his son and girlfriends’ parents are sleeping. Her parents work the night shift so that they can babysit while Duff and his girlfriend are at school.
He says they have helped him bond with his son, Brandon.
“He wanted to stand up, he wanted to be held, and every time I’d sit down he’d scream. And her dad walks through the door ... and says stand up with him, turn on some music and just sing to him," Duff says. "I did that and he fell asleep almost instantaneously and it was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had.”
Generations Ahead is the only program in rural Michigan that offers intensive hands-on support for teen parents. There is a smaller program in Elk Rapids and some resources provided by the state.
If they get the funding Generations Ahead could expand to other nearby counties, like Lake and Missauke, where birth rates are almost double the state average.