Lesly Henriquez is only 20, and has already faced down challenges that could shake even the strongest among us.
She grew up in a single-parent home, and through her adolescence and young adult life has experienced abuse, poverty, and homelessness.
In the middle of high school at age 17 — while working service jobs in the evenings to help support herself, her mother, and her younger siblings — she became pregnant.
“I felt so terrible. I felt so frustrated,” Henriquez said, recalling the day she learned about the pregnancy. “I felt sad, I felt angry. I felt like I was just going to fail.”
For many young women in similar situations, the pregnancy might have heralded even more rough times ahead.
But Henriquez has always valued her education, and knew it would be how she could give her daughter a better life than hers. With the support of Teen Success Inc, a San Jose-based nonprofit, Henriquez was able to power through.
“Honestly since I had no support from (her child’s) dad, no support from my family, they’ve literally been my support,” Henriquez said.
Teen Success is hoping to raise $25,000 through Wish Book donations to help more young mothers like Henriquez pursue higher education and break cycles of poverty.
In the U.S., only about 40 percent of women who have a baby before the age of 18 finish high school, and fewer than two percent finish college by age 30, according Power to Decide, a nonpartisan campaign to end unplanned pregnancies.
Teen pregnancy also disproportionately affects young women of color in under-resourced areas, acting as both a cause and a symptom of poverty. Two out of every three babies born to teens in California are born to Latinas, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Society at large stigmatizes young women who become pregnant, only adding to their challenges, said Karin Kelley, the executive director of Teen Success.
“One thing (young mothers) hear the most from schools, from parents, or from other public systems that they might be engaged in, is that you’ve ruined your life,” Kelley said. “That, to me, is not only a horrible message, it’s not true.”
Henriquez knew a child could disrupt the hard work she had put in toward her education during an already bumpy path through life. “I didn’t want to keep the baby,” she said.
She had previously bounced around high schools, one of which she stopped attending when she was a sophomore because former friends of hers tried to pressure her into affiliating with a gang.
At Apollo High School in San Jose, a continuation school, she was well on her way to graduating. Her confidence was building and she was eyeing UCLA as a potential college.
“And all my teachers were telling me, ‘You’re going to be able to do it,” she said.
The pregnancy changed everything. Her then-boyfriend pressured her to keep the baby.
Henriquez saw her dreams of attending college slipping away. Her visions of attending class each day and relaxing near the beach or venturing out to new restaurants in Los Angeles were becoming foggy.
Where she once felt hope, she felt despair.
“When (my teachers) would talk about colleges, I would start crying. They would talk about the future, like ‘When you go to UCLA,’ and I would just get sad,” she said.
Her friends stopped inviting her to hang out, and her relationship with the father of their child became strained. A teacher who found out about her pregnancy derided her.
“‘You’re never going to be a good mom, and you’re never going to be able to provide for your daughter the way that you should be able to, and your daughter is going to realize that when she’s older,’” Henriquez recalled the teacher saying to her.
After standing up for herself to that teacher, she was kicked out of the school, but remained focused on her goal of graduating, not just for herself, but for her daughter, Addilyn.
She got involved with Teen Success’ program for young mothers, which helps them with social emotional learning, parenting skills, and with setting and meeting goals, among other support services.
“We see them as the drivers of their own lives and our goal is to walk with them,” Kelley said.
“It’s our role to educate them and make sure they have the knowledge they need to make good decisions and to open doors for them and help them address barriers that they face in reaching their goals.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the nonprofit began dropping off diapers, wipes, and parenting kits to its members.
While working with Teen Success, Henriquez finished her high school diploma at Foothill High School, and earned a $4,000 grant from the nonprofit to help her with expenses as she prepared to pursue higher education.
“I felt very accomplished. After so many things got in my way, I finally did it,” Henriquez said of graduating.
But her challenges were not over. Because she couldn’t afford childcare for Addilyn, Henriquez was working as a Doordash driver, so she could take her daughter with her.
Her strained relationship with her mother meant she had nowhere to stay yet again, and Henriquez and Addilyn were homeless for about three months earlier this year, sleeping in her car, or in hotels for a night at a time.
Teen Success helped her enroll at Evergreen Valley College for online classes that began the first week of September, but just a few weeks into her courses, Henriquez got word her brother was killed in Mexico, and she had to travel there and raise money to help cover funeral expenses.
“There are times in the night where Addilyn’s asleep when I just cry,” she said, reflecting on the challenges life has presented her. “I just feel very sad sometimes,” she said. “I’ve been through so much, I don’t know how I’m still here.”
“Life happens for them,” Kelley said of young mothers who have to balance, work, childcare, and school.
“Just because they have graduated from high school and potentially are in post-secondary education doesn’t mean they don’t continue to face barriers and roadblocks. Our role is really just helping them continue to navigate them.”
“She’s a power parent,” Sandra Alvarez, 27, said of Henriquez. Alvarez is Henriquez’s advocate at Teen Success, and has bi-weekly check-ins with her, in addition to group classes and discussions the organization runs for its members.
“She takes on a lot of responsibilities for Addilyn. She finds the resources she needs,” she said. “She’s just overall very strong and resilient,” Alvarez said.
By mid-October, Henriquez got a refreshing bit of good news. Through Santa Clara County and the Bill Wilson Center, a hotel room was secured for her for at least three months.
Henriquez says being having a stable place to cook healthy meals and study will improve things for her and Addilyn, who is now 3.
Henriquez is studying psychology, and eventually hopes to become a social worker helping children, or a therapist, and is focused on making sure Addilyn’s path in life is smoother.
“I wanted to pursue my education so my daughter doesn’t struggle,” Henriquez said. “I want to be able to provide everything for my daughter.”
THE WISH BOOK SERIES
Wish Book is an annual series of The Mercury News that invites readers to help their neighbors.
Donations will help Teen Success, Inc., provide young mothers a laptop to access distance learning, monthly parenting education kits, diapers and wipes for a year, and an educational stipend to pursue post-secondary education. Goal: $25,000
Read other Wish Book stories, view photos and video at wishbook.mercurynews.com