MTV’s Teen Mom ran for four seasons, was known for hyped-for-the-camera drama, occasional off-camera tabloid headlines featuring some of the program’s stars, and for giving some of the show’s viewers a wake-up call salacious glimpse at what young women and men (and their babies) face when they become parents too soon. The reality show was not a public service announcement, however. The key piece of reality is that the show was created as entertainment, sold to advertisers and consumed by viewers.
No viewer could live the 24/7 reality that a 16 year-old mom does – the kind of reality that she experiences when she’s supposed to take a high school geometry final and has been up all night with a teething baby who has a double-ear infection. The kind of reality that comes from living a life out of sync with her age peers; the kind of reality that comes when she struggles to support herself while dealing with a deadbeat Baby Daddy.
Mona Boelens, the Executive Director of Teen Mother Choices (TMC), and the ministry’s team of staffers and volunteers, have been there for teen moms in the kinds of dedicated mentoring relationships that might make for uninteresting TV to the programming gurus at MTV, but has a rock-solid track record when it comes to helping young mothers build successful lives for themselves and their kids. I first met Mona when I was working for Christ Together, a church networking ministry based in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and admire her passion, integrity and tenacity. Married for more than 20 years, she is the mother of three sons and has been on staff with TMC since 1999. Her sustained commitment to the work of TMC is a story of following Jesus out to the margins, the places at the edge of things where our messiness and Christ’s forgiveness meet. I hope Mona’s story – (and the rest of the stories in this series) will spur you to wander out to the margins with Jesus in some new ways in your life.
Q. How were you first introduced to the work of TMC?
Mona: I first heard about TMC at Village Church of Gurnee (IL), my home church and host to the TMC program in Gurnee. After our first child was born, I was looking for a part-time position and only through God’s timing, a Director position was available in the ministry. I began serving teen mothers and their children in May of 1999, and ten years later was asked to take over as Executive Director. I’ve served in this role for the last four years.
Q. The mission of TMC is “to demonstrate the love of Jesus to teen mothers and their children, empowering them to become independent, contributing members in their communities”. This includes childcare assistance while the teenage mother is at work or school, lifeskills workshops, mentoring relationships, guidance and assistance in setting goals, financial and personal counseling, and helping to connect the teen mom to other agencies or professionals if she needs additional assistance. You ask the young women to make a serious, long-term commitment to TMC, but your stats tell a remarkable story of how this commitment has played out in the lives of over 400 moms who’ve completed the program. What is the story you’d like people to know about TMC beyond the stats?
Mona: This is a small ministry that makes a big impact in the community. We are a relational ministry of influence and we have been able to serve teen mothers and their children because of the staff and volunteers ability to provide both quality and breadth of services. We have grown because of the people who God has lead. It’s a kind of ministry that once you start serving, you kind of get ‘hooked’. It’s a very special place to see the Lord at work in the lives of young women and their children. I consider it an honor to witness the transformation that happens in these young lives.
Q: You keep a lot of plates spinning in order to empower the staff and volunteers to do what they do best, find creative ways to reach out to present and potential donors, connect TMC with the community, play a part in building relationships with teen moms, and find ways to stay connected to alumni of the program. What are the baseline most essential parts of your job?
Mona: Prayer is the foundation for everything I do, and everything we undertake as a ministry. Other key pieces of my role includes communication – which includes lots of listening – with staff, volunteers and the community. God has given us wise counsel, which is a blessing that helps us set and maintain direction. I also focus on building and managing relationships between ministry staff and volunteers. We need a strong, unified team to do everything we do. Another important part of my role is discerning and prioritizing the needs of those we serve as well as those who serve with us.
Q. What is your academic background?
Mona: I have a Bachelors of Social Work from Calvin College and a Master’s of Public Administration from Roosevelt University. (Here’s a link to Mona’s bio on the TMC website.)
Q. How has God changed you as you’ve served with TMC?
I have learned to trust him more. This position has humbled me and helped me realize how I am not a social worker as much as I am a ministry leader. I can’t do what I do without having great accountability with my staff and board spiritually and need to be plugged into a strong bible study like BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) so that I can be refueled and ready to pour back into my staff and ministry.
Q. I know you’ve been involved in many stories of transformation over the years. Are there any that really stand out to you?
Mona: There are two stories of teen mothers that bookend my time as Director in Gurnee. The first is Candice, who was a part of the program during my first five years in that job, and the second is Edith, who was a part of TMC during my last five years. Each of them was desperately searching for support. They soaked everything they could from our team in the best possible ways – practically, educationally, personally, financially and spiritually. They each started about age 16, had a great mentor relationship, stayed in the program, each eventually taking on a peer mentor role by encouraging newer younger mothers new to the program, and are now involved with Alumni. Their stories can be found here.
Q. What continues to motivate you in your role in this ministry?
Mona: I see so much potential to continue to change one life at a time because I’ve witnessed growth in our young moms. Our team is always watching for ways we can empower and demonstrate Christ’s love to teen mothers and their children. We see the Lord working in the lives of each one!
It is exciting to see them discover their potential as a family unit, but it’s also exciting to see how much love and support the community, both Christian and secular, has for these young ladies. While there is still judgment from some, I believe more people have compassion and a better understanding of why young moms become pregnant. We have the opportunity to show others that these young ladies desire to do the hard work to better their lives! Where once there was only shame, we have the opportunity to walk alongside young women who are experiencing transformation day by day during the time they’re a part of our program and beyond.
Is there a church or parachurch ministry in your community that offers the kind of long-time teaching and support to teen moms that TMC does? If so, please share the info below. Thanks!