Independent Appeal: The girls interrupted by a teenage pregnancy

Becoming a mother while still at school can be a ticket to a life of poverty. But not if Barnardo's can help it

Sophia Bullick giggles quite a lot, is besotted with her little daughter Amelia, loves fashion and is busy studying beauty therapy with the intention of becoming a beautician. She has made an early start in the business of life for she is just 16 years old. She became pregnant when she was only 14 and had Amelia, who will be two in March, just after her 15th birthday.

Sophia admits that, back then, she was "wild". The very early pregnancy was not the only complication in her young life. She had a difficult relationship with her mother and had been placed on the child-protection register. And when Sophia's baby Amelia was born that infant too was placed on the register. The cards seemed stacked against the new baby.

But that terrible spiral of deprivation has been broken for Sophia and Amelia, thanks to a programme devised by Barnardo's – one of the three charities being supported by donations from The Independent's readers in this year's Christmas Appeal.

When she realised she was pregnant, Amelia says, looking back: "I was really scared and panicky. I was thinking: 'How am I going to get through this?' Being only 14 at the time it was really scary."

Teenage mothers include some of the most vulnerable and isolated in society: if they drop out of education or training, this can impact not just on their own future prospects but on the life chances of their child.

Sophia, lives in the Co Armagh town of Portadown. "Me and my mum fell out a few years ago," she says. "I live with my dad. He's been really supportive." Staying in education took some determination on Sophia's part, but it also required much help and guidance from Barnardo's and a scheme known as "School Age Mothers".

A lot of complexities had to be worked through in terms of school, college, and relationship and parenting skills – procedures which a teenage single mum has little chance of managing on her own. But the Barnardo's programme helped Sophia stay on at school to complete her GCSEs.

"Barnardo's helped me realise what was going to happen, and how to get back into school to do my GCSEs," she says. "Without them, it would be a lot different, because I would have thought: 'I can't go back to school – there's no way to do this.'

"I got to meet other young mums, so I don't feel like I'm the only one in the world," she adds. "Barnardo's have been a really good help to me."

While off school having her baby, she was tutored. After success there, she has moved on to college for her beauty course. She is in her first year of study but is keen to go on to do a second. She now has a childminder while she attends college.

But that was not the only problem which the young teenager had to overcome. After Amelia's birth, the baby was placed on the child-protection register, since Sophia herself had been on it because she had become pregnant at such a young age.

Before her pregnancy, Sophia was said to be exhibiting anti-social tendencies, including missing school, drinking, and staying out late. But the reports on her are greatly improved, and Amelia was removed from the register.

A worker familiar with the case said: "Sophia worked hard to change her habits and prove her former anti-social behaviour was behind her. Because of this, she had her child's name removed from the register within six weeks of the birth."

Sophia takes considerable pride in this fact: "Everybody thought: 'Oh, she's gonna do bad.' But I proved them all wrong by getting her off it – I don't need the social workers any more because I proved myself.

"I just seen Amelia and I just felt so happy. Before I had her, I was like really wild and stuff, but I just saw her and I realised, I have a wee baby now, I need to wise up. It just changed my life." Barnardo's School Age Mothers programme deals with around 300 referrals each year in Northern Ireland alone. The girls are mostly aged 15 to 17, but a few are as young as 13.

They are encouraged to remain in school and are given support packages which, as in Sophia's case, may include childcare and home tuition during the maternity period.

Overall, their exam results seem to be encouraging, with more than half receiving decent GCSE grades, and 34 passing A-levels.

For more than a decade, the programme, which receives funding from the Department of Education, has worked with hundreds of young mothers. All pregnant teenagers in school are now automatically referred to it, either by their school or by health visitors.

The result is emotional, social and practical support to counter the fact that many teenage mothers drift away from school, abandoning career hopes and resigning themselves to a low-income lifestyle.

Thanks to Barnardo's, these young women are now able to bring up their child while completing their education, taking exams, achieving greater independence, and providing a more secure and better start in life for their children.

Sophia has even begun to rebuild the fractured relationship with her mother. "We're talking again now and she's getting to know Amelia."

And her daughter? "Oh my goodness, she's beautiful. She's the most class wee thing I have ever come across in my life. She's walking and she's talking and everything, she's absolutely amazing, just brilliant. She's so cool – she is just the best."

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.



* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org



* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk



* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk

CLICK HERE TO DONATE TO THE INDEPENDENT APPEAL

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