By Michelle Wagaman, Prevention Services Coordinator
Throughout our lives, we can point to those who have influenced us. For many it’s our own parents and family. Perhaps it’s your circle of friends or neighbors. Teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and the list goes on. We often talk of the impact of that “one caring adult” and encourage others to be that person.
During my tenure at the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board (RACSB), I’ve been fortunate to have many influences and a few I would even consider as mentors. These are people I’ve learned from and people I enjoy being around.
One such person is preparing to retire after 18 years of service to RACSB and our community. Joan Gillis has served as a Parent Educator with our Program for Teen Parents in Spotsylvania County since May 2000. By our estimate, she’s worked with more than 1,000 pregnant and parenting adolescents.
Joan is quick to tell these teens that they’re too young to be having babies but now that this blessing is on the way, you need to have a plan. For Joan, this plan means prenatal care, teen Lamaze classes, and Infant CPR. It means having the proper car seat installed by a certified technician. It means going to school, getting tutoring, and finishing high school or obtaining your GED. This plan also includes appropriate childcare and often childcare financial assistance. And, it includes assistance to navigate the educational system to identify accommodations and supports that can be provided to help these young parents in their education.
Joan is one of the most passionate people you will ever meet. These teens are fortunate to have her in their corner.
When I became a mother, I struggled. My daughter was born at 32 weeks and weighed less than 4-pounds. She spent her first few weeks in the NICU. In fact, I couldn’t even see or hold her during her first 24-hours. While tough, I can’t imagine having that experience with the added demands and stress of being a teenager. Both my husband and I were employed with good health insurance. The year before, we had purchased our first home and brought home a fur baby. While none of our family live near Fredericksburg, the new grandparents were able to come and provide assistance during those first challenging weeks. I would’ve loved to have someone like Joan cheering me on and providing that additional support.
While, gratefully, teen pregnancy rates have been declining over the past few years, the complex needs of those adolescents having babies have increased. There is more housing instability and divided households. There are more instances of substance abuse or mental illness. There’s also the reality of human trafficking. Joan is there. Working and collaborating with others in our community to help meet these needs.
When RACSB began to offer the Youth Mental Health First Aid training, Joan jumped at the opportunity to become a facilitator. Her passion for youth is evident every time she teaches the class. That’s how Joan views herself – as an educator. And, I’d have to agree. Teaching teen parents to care for themselves and their babies. Supporting these teen parents to advocate for themselves and their babies. Working with these new grandparents. Joan constantly looks for those teaching opportunities in everyday moments.
I want to use this opportunity to publicly thank Joan for her dedication to some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community. It has been my sincere honor to be along in this journey; to cheer the successes and to brainstorm solutions when challenges arose.
It truly takes a village and our community has benefited from having Joan Gillis in our tribe. Thank you and best wishes in your next adventure Joan.