Fewer than 2 percent of teen mothers earn a degree by age 30.
It’s a statistic that Maryland resident Nicole Lewis wants to help change.
A former homeless teen parent, Lewis founded Generation Hope, a nonprofit located in northeast D.C. that selects teen mothers and fathers who have displayed academic achievement and a desire to go to college to become scholars in the organization’s scholar program.
Each scholar in the program receives tuition assistance, one-on-one mentoring, intensive case management and wraparound services, including free tutoring, trainings and fun social events throughout the year. Generation Hope also provides free child care for scholars at all events.
“We have 90 percent persistence rate from year to year — meaning 90 percent of our scholars stay in our program and in college each year — and 70 percent of our scholars earn a 2.5 GPA or higher,” said Lewis, a graduate of the College of William & Mary. “When I told my parents I was pregnant, our house was thrown into turmoil. When you throw a crisis on top of an already fragile situation, it can cause everything to explode and that’s what happened.”
As a teen mother who overcame homelessness and a drug-infested environment, Lewis honed her skills in communications and nonprofit management to start Generation Hope in 2010.
Lewis, who in 2014 received honor as a CNN Hero, proved relentless in her drive to overcome many adversities.
“I ended up leaving my parents home and living place to place with my boyfriend, sometimes in his car in the high school parking lot, sometimes on people’s couches” she said. “I was pregnant, and I was still trying to get to school every day. It was a really stressful and difficult time. Right before I had my daughter, we moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment.”
While still a college freshman, Lewis split with her boyfriend and moved into a a family housing apartment on campus where she lived for three years until she graduated.
She’d later start Generation Hope and, since its start, the organization has helped provide more than $400,000 in college tuition assistance and presented college-readiness workshops to more than 600 students.
Many of these students are minorities who are the first in their families to graduate college. Today, the organization supports 101 teens, or “scholars” — a number that continues to grow each year.
“Teen mothers and fathers come to our program having already made the decision that they want to go to college,” Lewis said. “They have already earned their high school diploma or GED and most of them have already applied and been accepted to college. So they have made the commitment already.
“The hard part is staying the course once they’re in college because challenges inevitably come as a young parent, whether it’s losing transportation to class or not being able to afford child care” she said. “We are helping them navigate those challenges and encouraging them to stay on track to their degree no matter what.”
In March 2015, Generation Hope’s board approved an ambitious strategic plan, which called for significant growth over three years. As a result, the organization will serve more than 100 teen parents in college across the region.
“Growing Generation Hope over the past seven years has definitely exceeded my expectations,” Lewis said. “I didn’t have any seed money, office, or employees back then, but I had an incredible group of people who believed in my vision, and more importantly, believed in the potential of teen parents.
“Now, we have grown to a budget of more than $1 million, we have an office in D.C., eight full-time employees, and we have helped 30 teen parents earn college degrees through our program,” Lewis said. “It is incredible. It took a tremendous amount of hard work, and it has all been worth it.”
Despite the success, Lewis continues to seek more ways to help.
“We are looking to grow the program in some really exciting ways over the next three years, and in the long term, we hope to explore the possibility of expanding to other cities across the U.S.,” she said.
For more information, go to www.supportgenerationhope.org.