“It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s about where you finish.”
LaShunda Leslie-Smith repeated that line Saturday at an event aimed at encouraging teenage parents to stay on course and pursue their educational goals.
Leslie-Smith, 35, was speaking from experience. Becoming a mother for the first time at the age of 14, she currently runs Rochester’s first all-girls public school. Leslie-Smith also is working on a doctorate to add to her list of degrees. And, she is a motivational speaker and an author. This fall, she will travel to London for a book signing.
She shared her story of defying the odds as the keynote speaker of “True Triumphs: Celebration for Teen Mothers Who Believe Failure Is Not An Option,” held in Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Center on Ellicott Street in downtown Buffalo.
“The girl who got pregnant in the eighth grade was not a throwaway kid,” Leslie-Smith declared. “Instead, she’s the CEO of the finest institution in her town.”
The poignant address restored hope in 19-year-old Kiari Walker.
“I don’t feel trapped anymore,” said Walker, the mother of an 8-month-old, as she blinked back tears. “It’s inspiring to know that people before me have been in this situation and have made it. I know I’m going to reach my goals.”
The event was the second annual reception and awards for the Young Parents Campus, a program that provides supportive and wraparound services to mothers, ages 14 to 20.
“We work with them in any area, where they are lacking support, including housing,” said Janice White, the executive director of True Community Development Corp., which runs the program. “Unfortunately, teenage pregnancy is a reality in our community. New York State has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country. Our goal is to help them and get them on their feet.”
Walker, who is one of 25 program participants, said the program offers a variety of needed services.
“I don’t have a car but I’ve been able to get to doctor appointments, go grocery shopping and the laundromat,” she said. “I’ve gotten clothes for my baby and diapers. The program is very helpful.”
The event recognizes a person who has overcome challenges as a young parent with the “True Triumphs Award,” White said. This year’s honoree was LaToya Ranselle, mother of two and coordinator of the Young Parents Campus volunteer program. Last year’s winner, Tasha Moore, who overcame substance abuse and homelessness, presented the award to Ranselle, who also was praised for her work as a parent advocate for children with special educational needs.
A Rochester native, Leslie-Smith showed photos of her life with her husband, two children, and of her, standing in her office at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School. She became president/CEO of the school last year.
Leslie-Smith grew up in a two-parent home and did ballet and played the flute. But her home life was ruined by domestic violence, and she witnessed her father beating her mother.
“As a result I was a broken little girl, and I turned to friends and then to boys,” said Leslie-Smith, who added that the “genesis of social degradation is the breakdown of the family.”
After giving birth to her son, Leslie-Smith didn’t consider college until a co-worker on a summer job declared that both would attend college in a couple of years. At the time, she was 16 and still a freshman in high school.
Leslie-Smith completed high school on time and proved her co-worker right – first, graduating from St. John Fisher College and then receiving a collaborative master’s degree in social work from Nazareth College and SUNY at Brockport.
She also has begun work on a doctorate in social work at the University of Rochester.
Leslie-Smith also is the founder of Successful Pathways, a program for pregnant teens, teen parents and at-risk youths that serves 200 girls in the Rochester area. She is the author of “A Letter to My Mother” and “The Journey of a Teenage Mother.”
“I stand before you as an example of the possibilities,” she told the audience. “To see your potential you have to look past the stereotypes and your circumstances.”