It’s just a single room in the basement of Peoria’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, furnished by comfy chairs, baby beds and colorful animal drawings. In this room, young women have been helped to reach their full potential, though they spend little time here.
During the school year, children 6 weeks to 3 years of age spend their days at the Westminster Infant Care Center, while their mothers are at school earning their high school diplomas or GEDs.
The Infant Care Center had its beginnings 50 years ago, when Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1420 W. Moss Ave., started taking on more mission projects.
Marge Sutherland, a member of the mission committee, is credited with championing the Center. “There was nothing like this for young parents to get childcare while getting a high school education,” said Jeanie Olson, the board’s current treasurer. “It was a need and it still is.”
Each school day, the center’s van picks up the young mothers and babies from their homes and drives to the daycare, where the mothers say goodbye to their babies and are then driven to school.
While the moms are studying, their children learn, too. “They are read to, there is painting, block play, dramatic play, dress-up, puzzles, pretend play, trips to the playground and lots of singing and dancing,” said Valerie Sager, the Center’s director. Also, “there’s naptime … and cuddle time.”
During the school day, mothers receive photos or video of their child from the care staff, so the moms feel connected. Child and mom also get nutritious meals.
For all those services, most mothers pay just $1 per month. Charges are assessed according to income level. Some of the moms have no family support. Some are essentially homeless.
“Removing barriers that might hinder them in their educational goals, that’s what we do,” Sager said. “We don’t want teen parents to drop out of school. We want to see them get a high school diploma and go on to whatever their full potential might be. But it all begins with that diploma.”
Sager arrived at Westminster 23 years ago, answering a help wanted ad in the newspaper. Having moved frequently due to her husband’s military service, she had last worked at Fort Meade in Maryland as director at a child development center.
“This was a perfect fit for me. I have this passion to be nurturing and loving to teen parents, as my parents were teen parents,” Sager said. Her mom was 16, her dad 18 when daughter Valerie was born. “It’s been eye-opening for me. I have such great appreciation for what my mom and dad went through.”
According to information provided by Peoria Public Schools, teen pregnancy rates have been going down across the country, including Peoria. However, Peoria County’s teen birth rate is higher than the state’s, nearly four times the national rate. For every 1,000 teen girls in Peoria, 84 become teen moms. Only 50% of teen moms earn a high school diploma. Meanwhile, their children often have delayed development because of the challenges that teen parents face.
“There are always going to be teen pregnancies, no matter what,” said Sager.
If parent and child are receiving services from the Center when the mother receives her diploma or GED, they can continue receiving assistance there until the child turns 3, if mom continues her education. Westminster’s teen moms brag a 90% success rate in getting their diplomas or GEDs.
Many young moms don’t know help is available. Pregnant girls often quit school without telling school counselors why. The latter usually make the referral to Westminster.
“We are focused on childcare and transportation,” Sager said. “But we can guide them to agencies for help with other issues, too, such as mental health counseling, parenting classes and … health services. We can plug them into local resources for help with housing and food.”
Beyond that, the Center tries to provide a sense of family. “We just try to love them, nurture them and help them as best we can,” said Sager. “We’re there to tell them we believe in them and they can do this.”
The Center also is licensed to care for children with special needs. Malik, the son of LaToya Lewis, was one of them. Lewis was in the eighth grade when Malik was born, in 2000. After the delivery, the newborn was whisked out of the delivery room for testing. “Later, the doctor came into my room and told me Malik had Down Syndrome. He handed me a book about Down Syndrome and walked out,” Lewis said.
“I was so young, I didn’t know what Down Syndrome was,” she recalled. “I knew I was just going to do it one day at a time.”
Malik had a feeding tube for the first two years of his life. A member of the Westminster congregation who was a nurse trained the Infant Care Center staff on how to feed the infant, who also needed twice-a-week physical therapy at Easterseals.
“They told me what to do and I went home and did it,” Lewis recalled. Her own mother had told her, “You got pregnant, now you take care of him.”
Malik is now 21 years old and a recent graduate of vocational school. Lewis looks back on her experience at Westminster as an “it takes a village” moment. She valued the family-oriented, non-judgmental environment. When she informed Center staff that she was moving with family to Minnesota in 2002, “they all cried,” she said.
Lewis would go on to get her bachelor’s degree in social work. She now has two daughters, 9 years old and 10 months old. She is an entrepreneur, designing weighted and compression clothing for people with autism. She came to this new career through Malik, who was diagnosed with autism at age 4.
“It would have been a struggle those first two years without the people at the Infant Care Center and I would not have known what a good, positive support system looks like. Through them, I was making connections, asking for help and building my own support system,” said Lewis.
There have been so many other success stories. Ebonicia Leggins was a high school sophomore when daughter Machia was born. “There were negative ways I could have turned, but … they were so positive.” Today she resides in Iowa and operates her own event decorating business. Her daughter is now 20.
While a student at Manual High School, Angel Sashington delivered her daughter, Zaria, in June, 2020. At 18 months, Zaria started attending Westminster. Mom finished high school a year early, and begins nursing studies at Midwest Technical Institute in August.
Currently, Westminster has the staff to attend to eight children. The Center is licensed through the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to care for up to 11 children.
Although created through the vision of Westminster Presbyterian Church members, WICC is an independent, non-profit organization with 501(c)(3) status and has its own board of directors. It receives funding from Westminster Presbyterian Church, other area churches and the Child Care Connection Subsidy Program, overseen by SAL Childcare Connection, in addition to private donations and grants.
Student parents looking for childcare during the coming school year can contact Sager at 309-224-6238 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pregnant mothers starting school this fall can reserve space for later in the school year.