‘This is only the beginning’: The Care Center graduates 15 young mothers

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 07-02-2023 9:55 AM

HOLYOKE — Donning a violet mortarboard and gown on a sweltering June afternoon in the back garden of the Wistariahurst Museum, Destiny Bermudez stood confidently at a podium and smiled.

Facing a number of trials during her teenage years, the Bronx native dropped out of high school eight years ago with the intention of going straight to work. Then during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she became a mother. Often regarded with negative feedback about her “choices” and told to deal with the consequences, the challenges of being a young mother were only exacerbated by the extended period of isolation and feelings of loneliness.

But on Friday, the 22-year-old Chicopee woman stood before her friends, family and peers as the salutatorian of her class.

“We are told when we begin this journey of motherhood that our lives are over and clearly that can be further from the f— truth. This is only the beginning,” says Bermudez. “The only thing that is coming to an end is the old versions of ourselves.”

Bermudez was one of 15 young mothers who attended The Care Center in Holyoke, and had passed the high school equivalency test (HiSET) this year.

The center, which is an alternative education organization, provides academic classes to mothers and soon-t0-be mothers between the ages of 16 and 24 in preparation for the HiSET and college. Classes range from science to poetry and drama and can take anywhere from a few months to three years before students take the test.

The center also provides on-site day care, counseling, assistance with the transition to higher education and door-to-door transportation.

For many young women, the staff at the center are the first people to suggest to the students that they could go on to college, Executive Director Anne Teschner said.

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“The HiSET exam is not an easy exam to pass, and these women have not had an easy time with it. Obviously they’ve all dropped out of school, but they’ve been diminished and struggled with the work of having a baby and caring for a child. But they’ve shouldered on, came to school, passed their exam and many are on to college,” said Teschner.

This particular class also broke some new records, according to Ana Rodriguez, education director at the organization. For the first time in 25 years, the center had 100% attendance from the students and among the best scores in the organization’s history.

During the ceremony, Rodriguez also provided commentary in Spanish, which led to a rousing shout of ”Sí, se puede!” Translated, the phrase means “Yes, you can!”

Michaella Bouchard, 23, of Westfield, passed her HiSET in two months, all while working nights, caring for her child at home and pregnant with her second child.

“The support they provide her is just amazing,” she said.

The class valedictorian was Olivia Roberts, who started attending the center last September while she was pregnant. She credited her academic success to the support received at the center.

“The stigma surrounding teen moms is horrible. Everyone doubts that we’ll be able to finish school and follow our dreams, but we can. We just need the ambition to do it and the right support system,” said Roberts. “The Care Center provides an amazing support system and gives us so many opportunities to better our lives.”

Also in attendance at the ceremony was Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia and state Rep. Patricia Duffy, D-Holyoke.

Bermudez said that she turned to the center because she wanted to “be better” for her daughter, Janylie, who is now 4 years old. Her academic performance also earned her a seat on the organization’s staff, becoming the first-ever student tutor.

“The higher I climb, the higher the path she can follow,” she said.

In August, Bermudez will attend Bard Microcollege Holyoke, the nation’s first college for young mothers and women with low income. There, she intends to get her associate degree, which she says will hopefully be one of several degrees toward her future. In addition to her aspirations in higher education, she also hopes to own her own business, so that her daughter can be on a path to generate wealth of her own.

“I’m excited to share this day with my daughter and have her be proud of me graduating. But the center also made me realize that there’s not just one aspect of myself,” she said. “I can be more than a mom, and I will be.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>