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Inside an unassuming Victorian-era building, just west of downtown Holyoke, is one of the nation’s most distinctive creative community development initiatives: The Care Center. It is an example of what can happen when culture and creativity form the foundation to dismantle systemic barriers for individuals, as well as communities.
Enter The Care Center, and on every wall, there is art by the students. Poems that probe the multiplicity of humanity’s realities fill the hallways. Drawings, photographs, and paintings are thoughtfully arranged and reflect various facets of each individual’s personality, journey, or a moment in time. Reminders of upcoming deadlines with the Department of Transitional Services, illustrated alphabet posters for toddlers, and notices of upcoming events hang all around. Young women’s voices, sighs, exclamations, and laughter float through the building, as each is a part of a transformative effort that seeks to break the cycle of poverty.
The Care Center opened in 1986 with the mission to provide resources for teen mothers and their families. 100% of the women are from low-income households, and 94% are women of color. In a culture that stigmatizes teen pregnancy and condemns young mothers, in particular, young mothers of color, The Care Center offers a different model of working with these youth. “20 years ago, we made an intentional shift,” said Anne Teschner, Director of The Care Center, while describing the evolution of the Center’s program development. Over time it moved from a more traditional social service organization, toward one that embraces the power of arts, education, and culture to build a different support system that offers greater socioeconomic mobility.
“We meet the young woman where they’re at,” explained Jenna Sellers, Director of Support Services. Rather than merely trying to level the playing field, The Care Center understands each individual requires specialized care respective of varying personalities and experiences. Being aware of the multi-layered context young mothers face is important as well, as the labyrinth of obtaining public resources for teen mothers can be long and arduous. Teschner described the many conversations over the years she had with the Department of Transitional Assistance as she lobbied to allow young mothers on assistance to have access to higher education through the completion of the Associate Degree.
“There’s an assumption that if you live in poverty, you don’t need intellectual stimulation or cultural access and, at the worst, don’t deserve it,” Teschner said as she and Ana Rodriguez, Director of Education, discussed the stereotypes society holds with regard to who is worthy, and who is not. “It’s important that these girls are celebrated…that they feel they’re as good as anyone else,” Rodriguez added.
Teschner is not afraid to blaze trails and carries the advice of, “allow yourself as an organization to be bold and on the edge of discovery. This is what really brings in the oxygen.” Back in 1993, Teschner took a deep breath and launched the YouthReach Initiative at the Mass Cultural Council, a first of its kind state grant program that supported creative youth development through a social justice lens. YouthReach recognizes youth as agents of change, understanding them as a resource and partner in creating healthy communities. This acknowledgment of youth as assets within their communities has carried on in Teschner’s work, as she has consistently pushed the boundaries of perceptions around underserved youth.
In 2016, the Center, together with Bard College, launched the first college for women whose studies have been cut short due to pregnancy or parenthood. Known as the Bard Microcollege Holyoke, women who graduate from this program receive an Associate of Arts degree. Students often enter the Microcollege after completing The Clemente Course in the Humanities, an award-winning program, developed by Bard College and supported by Mass Humanities, that enables underserved and marginalized individuals to receive college credits while being introduced to works of literature, moral philosophy, art history, and critical thinking and writing. Both programs act as a gateway toward the pursuit of higher education, as is evident in The Care Center’s statistics.
On average, 95% of Care Center graduates are first in their families to attend college. 75% of Care Center graduates enroll in college, which is more than the 43% of students who graduate from high school nationally. The Microcollege, which during its 2016 inaugural session enrolled 10 students, now has 45. 100% of the College’s first cohort have graduated with an Associate’s Degree and have also gone on to pursue further studies at 4-year colleges including Smith, Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and The Elms College.
“We had a culture where young moms were being pushed out of public education…The Care Center filled a real void in the community in terms of making sure all of Holyoke’s young people have access to a good quality education,” said Mayor of Holyoke Alex Morse while speaking of The Care Center’s unique model.
At the Care Center, high expectations around academic excellence go together with providing systems of support tailored for young mothers. Day care is offered for newborns and toddlers, along with early childhood education that promotes early literacy from a young age. Door-to-door transportation is provided to teen mothers to ensure every student has a ride to classes, medical appointments, and area services. An on-site nurse practitioner provides care five mornings a week, in addition to the support and transition counselors that guide the young women through personal and academic hurdles, including challenges endured by first-generation college students.
Arts, culture, and creativity play an integral role in the development of these young women, as art teacher Julie Lichtenberg noted, “The arts allow you to think inward and reflect…to be bigger than this moment.” Exploring archetypes in art studio, youth explore concepts of universal humanity and identity by creating masks that incorporate various patterns and materials reflective of select archetypes. Poetry has a deep and expansive presence at The Care Center, too. Students comprise the Editorial Board of Nautilus, an anthology of poems published by Care Center young women who draw inspiration from themselves, as well as renowned writers and poets who hold workshops and readings at The Care Center, such as Nikky Finney, Lesléa Newman, Junot Díaz, and Robert Pinsky. Remarking on the accessibility of poetry as an art form with the capacity to shift perspectives, Teschner said, “Poetry allows students access into the power of words and their own untapped capacity as writers. They’re able to take on a new role and become a part of the long public dialogue on the human experience.”
Being able to be a part of the “long public dialogue” is perhaps one of the most important takeaways of The Care Center and is key to the mothers being able to connect to oneself, each other, and to their broader community. Rodriguez shared, “The students serve as translators for each other while they’re at The Care Center.” AJ, Crystal, and fellow Care Center classmate, Tessa, emphasized the familial bonds shared among the young women, where youth feel safe to be themselves and are supported by staff who genuinely care. The girls belong to text groups with other Care Center women who offer each other words of encouragement and advice through various stages of their Care Center experience, whether they just started taking a computer class, or have graduated from the Microcollege. Care Center alumni who are at nearby colleges return to offer guidance or tutoring assistance, or to receive support and help themselves, both of which they know are always available to them.
“Art and creativity is at the center of a lot of what we do, and that means not just thinking about visual arts, photography, or things that people can see…It starts with a focus on public education, and integrating arts into public education so that the extent of our success isn’t defined by our ability to attract artists from out of town [but developing] a pipeline of artists of local people that are representative of our constituencies of people, and making sure our current students are our future artists, creatives, and makers in the community.”
The reach of The Care Center extends to spaces and people beyond the immediate building, as the Center is an active, creative hub in Holyoke and part of a larger network of teachers and artists from all over the Northeast, but especially those from Western Massachusetts. Instructors and faculty from area colleges run math and science programs through the Hypatia Institute. Students attend Humanities 108 sponsored by Greenfield Community College in a program developed to introduce a college-level course for youth preparing for the High School Equivalency exam. The Smith College Poetry Center works with The Care Center to build its robust visiting poets program, while Hampshire College offers access to its photography and film facility. And even though it may seem the bulk of The Care Center’s attention is focused on expecting and teen mothers, the organization shares its education, health, and cultural resources with other underserved women in Holyoke, as well as with area youth. For example, The Care Center (now in partnership with the Performance Project) has run the Teen Resource Project, an after-school creative youth development program for at-risk teens in partnership with the Holyoke Public Schools for over 30 years.
More recently, Way Finders, an affordable housing developer based in Springfield, broke ground on a new project, the Library Commons, a mixed-use development featuring 38 residential units for households at 60% or higher of the area median income, along with retail and cultural spaces. The Library Commons sits a few blocks south of The Care Center, near the Holyoke Public Library, and will include space dedicated to arts and culture programs at Roqué House. Named after Puerto Rican educator and suffragist Ana Roqué de Duprey, Roqué House hopes to further change ideas around who has a right to affordable and safe housing, as well as the pursuit of education, creativity, and self-fulfillment. Ten of the two- to three-bedroom units within the Library Commons will house teen parents who are enrolled in post-secondary education programs, while The Care Center will manage educational and cultural offerings, counseling, an artist-in-residence program, and additional ancillary support services to residents of the Commons.
“We joke that we cracked the code. A combination of high expectations, a matter-of-fact attitude toward success, and support works. We see the shift in the young women who come to The Care Center. It’s a posture change, a look in the eyes, an honest change in the way they look at the world,” Teschner said. Indeed, this ethos around high expectations and thinking beyond what exists is palpable within The Care Center, as well as city government, both entities which have examined what it means to integrate creativity and community.
This through-line between The Care Center and the city is evident in the close relationship shared between Care Center staff and numerous city departments, as well as in the sentiments expressed by youth.
“Holyoke is a city that cares about its people,” Tessa shared as she spoke of the rarity in finding a place like The Care Center that helps “make everything possible.” It’s also reflective of what can happen when organizations listen deeply, identify obstacles, and both courageously and creatively find solutions in partnership with other entities that share a common goal: a goal of developing a supportive city that truly invests in its community.
When asked to try and sum up all they had gained from being at The Care Center, Tessa (age 16), AJ (age 22), and Crystal (age 19) responded, with the following three statements:
“I have understanding.”
“I know I am capable.”
“I am successful.”
These outcomes reflect Teschner’s vision that includes the advice of, “Don’t be afraid to articulate your needs and vision. Be bold.” Following this advice has allowed so many young women to bring their dreams to fruition. These strengthened lives have also resulted in collective changes in our communities and inspire us all to take those next steps forward with passion and purpose in building brave futures together.