Mothers from Florence Crittenton program face expected and unexpected challenges on the long road of motherhood

Executive Director of the Florence Crittenton house Lisa Belton greets Erica Moore and Nicole Thomas who were both past residents of the home during their pregnancy. Moore is on of the Board of Directors for the nonprofit. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

Mother of three and freelance writer Nicole Thomas knows too well the challenges, often unexpected and unrelenting, of motherhood.

After the first two weeks of her junior year at Wando High School in 1997, she found out she was pregnant. The teenager sought help from the Florence Crittenton Programs of South Carolina, which operates a home on St. Margaret Street in Charleston.

Crittenton not only enabled Thomas to continue her education but provided a crash course on being a mother and in prenatal care. Being a former student at the Southern Baptist-run First Baptist High School, the family appealed to let her finish high school there. She graduated, got a job and taught herself accounting while raising her daughter, Presley.

In 2004, Nicole married Michael Thomas, her best friend and strong supporter from her First Baptist years, and they had two children, daughter Lillian Grace and son Hudson. Nicole went to Charleston Southern University studying communications.

All seemed on a fairly normal track when Hudson, at age 15 months, started to regress.

“He stopped walking, stopped talking, stopped literally everything. We went through 25 hours a week of different therapies and dozens of doctors and so on. It was such a huge heartache for my family. As a mother, trying to balance three kids, but I'm pouring so much energy into one kid,” said Thomas.

Though diagnosed with autism in 2010, all that energy — namely therapy — has apparently paid off. Last fall, Hudson no longer fit the criteria of autism.

“He still has some deficits but nothing noticeable. It's been a huge challenge,” said Nicole. “Sometimes I deserve a hall pass. Don't I just get to have a break? But I think that's the nature of motherhood.”

She credits her family and friends, which include Crittenton and her longtime pediatrician, for providing the necessary support system to be a good mother.

And while she still has years of motherhood to go, she remains involved in the life of Crittenton.

“Motherhood is not only a struggle if you're a teen mom or single parent. It's just as much of a struggle now with my three kids and a husband. ... Parenthood is the most serious commitment you can make in your life.”

During a recent reunion for mothers who had been through the Crittenton program, many of them said Mother's Day is truly every day at Crittenton, which opened its doors in Charleston in 1897, and has weathered fiscal storms as tough as the personal ones that their clients endure.

“We came close to shutting down four years ago,” said Executive Director Lisa Belton, adding that the community rallied with support and the nonprofit streamlined staff and took other cost-cutting measures.

With 13 full-time and 13 part-time staff members, many licensed, Crittenton still struggles. And yet Belton said giving to Crittenton saves money in the long run.

“We make a huge contribution to our economy. A dollar donated to Florence Crittenton saves $4 in taxpayer costs,” Belton said, noting the savings in welfare, medical services for children and foster care expenses.

“Florence Crittenton is a critical part of our state and our community. We're the only program of our kind in the state that serves single young women,” Belton said.

“Girls who become pregnant as teenagers, 60 percent of them drop out of high school, and 95 percent of our girls finish high school, so we know we are interrupting the cycle of teen pregnancy and poverty, and that's our goal.”

Jonquila Johnson looks at her 2-year-old daughter, Jazyeiah Cooper, with the adoring eyes of any proud, albeit tired, mother.

“She's my motivation to get me up, through work and school. I've got to provide for her and make her life good,” said the 20-year-old North Charleston resident.

Johnson admits that she wasn't always responsible and mature for her age.

After becoming pregnant as a junior in high school, her mother found out about the Florence Crittenton program and suggested that Jonquila go.

While staying at the Crittenton home, she learned how to take care of a newborn and received prenatal care and professional counseling, which included the importance of graduating from high school, being self-sufficient and making better decisions.

It worked. Jonquila graduated from Fort Dorchester High School in 2010, moved into her own place in North Charleston, works at Captain D's and takes online classes at Everest University.

Last weekend, Jonquilla, her mother Janet Johnson, and Jazyeiah, as well as 10 other mothers who received help from Crittenton, returned to the home for its annual reunion, always on a weekend near Mother's Day.

“I feel very excited to come here and to see all my teachers. They all taught me a lot, and they are part of the reason that I'm trying to be a good mother today. I like to come and celebrate that with them.”