A nonprofit in Kentucky helps young single moms achieve their goals, with additional help during the pandemic.

By Jim Tuttle

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Chelsea Burgoyne first realized she might be pregnant after Googling the symptoms of her morning sickness. She was 15.

“A lot of 15-year-olds are either worried about spending a night at their friend’s house, or getting their school work done, or whatever,” Burgoyne said. “But me, all I was thinking was how am I going to provide for this child?’”

Nine years later, Burgoyne has built a life that seemed impossible to her when she was 15. She purchased her own home last year, and is working hard to give her son and daughter a better childhood than her own. For the past three years, she has found support and community through Step By Step, a nonprofit in Lexington, Kentucky, that serves young single mothers, ages 12 to 24.

“I want people to avoid underestimating young single moms,” said Tanya Torp, executive director of Step By Step. “Because we see them come in, especially moms with incredible trauma, incredibly hard, difficult pasts, and when they have an opportunity to breathe a little bit and get some support, everything changes for them.”

One of the first words Burgoyne uses to describe her own childhood is “lonely.” Growing up in Frankfurt, Kentucky, she experienced neglect and abuse as she and her brothers were forced to live with various relatives while their parents were in and out of jail.

By the time she was 13, Burgoyne was hanging out with older teens and young adults. She was back living with her mother, who was off drugs, but their relationship was strained. Two years later, she became involved with the 21-year-old man who would become her child’s father. Four months into her pregnancy, he died by suicide. Her son, Amari, was born premature at 32 weeks after Burgoyne spent nearly a month in the hospital due to complications with her delivery.

Chelsea Burgoyne makes hot chocolate with her children, Naomi and Amari, in the home she bought last year with help from Step By Step’s “Dare to Dream” program. The nonprofit’s case managers and volunteer mentors check in regularly with young single mothers to provide support and help them reach their goals. [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]
Step By Step provides ongoing support in other ways, too. When Burgoyne had to go to court over a child-support matter with her daughter’s father, her case manager went with her. She graduated from the program last year, and is now growing into a leadership role that will allow her to mentor other moms. “I've always wanted to feel a part of something, and to feel like I'm making change,” she said. [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]
Chelsea Burgoyne reads a story to her daughter, Naomi. "My parents used drugs and alcohol, so I didn't have the best childhood," Burgoyne said. "I knew I wanted more for them." [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]

How people grow up — that impacts the decisions they make as a teenager,” she said. “You don’t just wake up one day like, ‘Oh, let me go be a teen mom.’ It’s a lot of things that bring you to that point. But once you are at that point, you just have to make the best of the situation, never give up, and know that you’re no longer here for just yourself. You’re here for someone else as well.”

Nearly 200,000 babies are born each year to mothers aged 15 to 19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the national teen birth rate has dropped dramatically in recent years, by 64 percent between 1991 and 2015, it remains significantly higher than in other Western industrialized countries.

“When you close your eyes and someone talks about a young single mother, you get a certain image in your head. And we’re socialized to have those images,” Torp said. “Young single moms can be Black, they can be White, they can be anything. They can come from a family that has a lot of resources, and they can come from a family with very few resources.”

Torp, who is also an associate pastor at a United Methodist church in Lexington, said that she sees Step By Step’s mission as an often overlooked necessity — supporting young women and girls who choose to have their babies instead of seeking an abortion.   

As long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve always heard that life starts at conception,” Torp said. “We want the baby to be born. And while I care about that, and I think that is essential, once these girls have their babies, some of those same [pro-life] people are nowhere to be found. These moms need that support.”

Teenage motherhood is fraught with life-altering challenges. According to the CDC, only about 50 percent of teen moms receive a high school diploma by the age of 22, compared to a 90 percent graduation rate for women who do not become mothers as adolescents. Statistics show that children born to teen mothers are also more likely to struggle in school, be incarcerated during adolescence, and give birth as teenagers themselves.

Tanya Torp is executive director of Step By Step in Lexington, Kentucky. “A very beautiful small town with city aspirations, is what I call it,” she said. “A lot of people don’t really know that there are problems here like homelessness, domestic violence, and things of that nature that we see every single day at Step By Step.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]

They already know that people think that they’re a statistic, that they’re never going to make anything of themselves, that they are a burden on the system, and that our tax dollars are paying for them. They literally hear those things,” Torp said. “We want people to realize that these are people with real feelings and what they desire most is to belong to a community, and to give their children all they can give them.”

Facing school truancy charges after Amari was born, Burgoyne dropped out in the 11th grade. However, she passed the GED and earned her Certificate of High School Equivalency a month later. When she was 18, she found a job in Lexington and moved there with her son and mother. 

“It doesn’t mean that we’re less of a person or that we’re not going to be successful,” Burgoyne said of becoming a teen mom. “It just means it might take a little longer, or we might have to try a little harder.”

Step By Step was founded as a church support group in 1995 by three friends who wanted to do something after reading about the frequency of child abuse and young mothers losing custody of ther children. The group caught on, more and more young women kept showing up, and eventually Step By Step became a nonprofit.

The organization has evolved further this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, shifting into gear to gather and deliver supplies, like diapers and wipes, and providing young single moms with much-needed money to help cover their bills, rent, and mortgage payments.

“When the child care facilities closed, it was over for moms. Single moms cannot work if they don’t have adequate childcare. And so we started paying their bills. Cell phone bills, light bills, all utilities,” Torp said. “We would pay their full rent and up to $300 a month for other bills. And that gave people wiggle room so they weren’t evicted.”

Torp said this program prevented about 22 families from being evicted before a national moratorium on evictions was declared on September 4. This became possible after Step By Step quickly raised about $40,000 in emergency funds. More recently, they received a $33,000 grant from the City of Lexington to continue making emergency payments as needed.

Chelsea Burgoyne walks with her children at a park near their home. “Those that don’t have support, they do become statistics, and it’s just so easy to be supportive of these moms,” Step By Step Executive Director Tanya Torp said. “So what would it be like if our communities supported them always? The statistics would change.” [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]

The organization serves about 250 mothers and children each year. Torp estimates that 96 percent of the families they work with are living at or below the federal poverty line, which is about $17,000 for a two-person household.

“We have a holistic view of serving these women. It is not just us wanting to pour the gospel into them. We’re meeting them right where they are and recognizing whatever they need and want,” Torp said.

When she showed up at Step by Step for the first time, Burgoyne had a second child, a daughter named Naomi, with a man who turned out to be physically and emotionally abusive. He was eventually arrested on drug charges, and Burgoyne was living on her own with both children when she heard the nonprofit’s commercial on the radio. She called and was invited to a weekly meeting, which happened to be scheduled for that night.

I haven’t missed a meeting since,” she said. “I had a lot of helplessness, hopelessness, a lot of depression, and anxiety. That has dramatically changed just by getting God into my life and my kids’ life and just knowing that there is a bigger purpose.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Thursday night meetings were a foundational program for Step By Step. Free transportation and child care were provided so the young women could attend life-skills classes and support groups, eat dinner together, and socialize. The meetings are now held via video conference, but Burgoyne and Torp admit it’s just not the same.

Chelsea Burgoyne signs in Naomi and Amari for the Sunday morning kids’ program at Immanuel Baptist Church. She started attending services there because that’s where Step By Step’s Thursday night meetings were held prior to the pandemic. [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]
“It's a Christian-based program, but they don't force it on you or anything like that. That was one of my goals, to get closer to God,” Burgoyne said. “My 15-year-old self, I wish she would’ve known that everything was going to be okay, and I wish she had found God then, but it's okay. It all happens when it's supposed to happen.” [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]

“Just trying to remain focused and positive and staying in my faith has been hard,” Burgoyne said. “Not seeing all the people I really want to be around has really been tough.

After losing her job as a bill collector in March, Burgoyne remains unemployed. Her children — nine-year-old Amari and five-year-old Naomi — have been attending school virtually, and Burgoyne has the opportunity to spend more time with them while figuring out her next big goal. She’s thinking she might want to go back to school or start her own business.

Whatever path she chooses, Burgoyne said her Step By Step community and her faith have helped her build the confidence she needs to go forward. She enjoys being a leader and sharing her strength with other young women who are going through similar experiences.  

She hopes she can pass on the wisdom she learned at Step By Step: “Don’t let other people tear you down or tell you what you can’t do. You can do anything. Never give up on yourself.”

Top photo: Chelsea Burgoyne swings with her five-year-old daughter, Naomi Wheat, at a playground in Lexington, Kentucky. [Photo by Jennifer Swanson]