It’s a clear winter day when I meet Ty-Asia Marshall, a petite 19-year-old with a soft voice and bedazzled facemask, at the nonprofit Rosemary’s Babies Company.
She and her boyfriend arrived via Uber, courtesy of the program’s founder, Rosemary Oglesby-Henry. Here, in a cheerful space overflowing with clothing racks, boxes of diapers, disassembled high chairs, and every kind of baby paraphernalia imaginable, Marshall talks about what life is like as a new parent.
She was 16 years old, working as a cash register attendant at the Walnut Hills McDonald’s and heading into her sophomore year of high school, when she found out she was pregnant. “I was stressing,” she says, and afraid. “My mom was mad because of my age.” Things got better, though, when a teacher connected her to “Miss Rosemary,” who gave Marshall a crib and a car seat, and “told me it was going to be OK.”
Marshall moved in with her boyfriend, his mom, and several half-siblings before giving birth to a son, Prince Amauri La’Monte Marshall, on October 15, 2019. Two weeks later, Marshall was back at work at McDonald’s, but school was another story. “I felt like they were rushing me to graduate,” she says. It was too much pressure, so she stopped going. When the pandemic hit just months later, the fact that Marshall doesn’t own a computer made virtual school impossible anyway.
Today, she’s working evenings at UDF, still living with her boyfriend and his mom. Prince Amauri has grown into an active toddler. And, thanks again to Oglesby-Henry, Marshall now has her own computer and is back at school, focused on graduating from Dohn Community High School’s Keeping Teen Moms in School program. She is also adamant that she won’t be having more children any time soon. The road has not been easy. “I didn’t think there would be a lot of people to support me,” Marshall says, “until I met Miss Rosemary.”
“For decades,” a 2019 Pew research study noted, “the share of U.S. children living with a single parent has been rising, accompanied by a decline in marriage rates and a rise in births outside of marriage.” That same year, in fact, 40 percent of all U.S. births were to unmarried women. Here in Ohio, the numbers match up; CDC data shows that roughly 43 percent of births statewide are to unmarried mothers. Add in the fact that in 2015, 43.1 percent of Ohio single mothers lived in poverty and the vast majority of those mothers were mixed race, Hispanic, or Black (in that order), and you begin to get a big-picture view of the trend. Making things even more complex? In 2018, 31 percent of all Ohio births were specifically to unmarried teen parents, ages 15–19.
It’s one thing to cite statistics; it’s another to meet the people behind them and try to figure out how to help each one. Pro-life and pro-choice advocates envision very different big-picture solutions, but the facts remain: Significant numbers of unmarried women—oftentimes poor and/or underage—are having babies here in Ohio, and they need help. Sometimes they need tangible things like car seats, cribs, diapers, clothes, food, or transportation to doctor’s appointments. Maybe a computer to help finish their online classes. Other times they need help with childcare or finishing their education, or finding places to live, as many are either unwelcome or unwilling to stay at home. But the things they seem to need most are emotional support, guidance (sometimes on a near 24-hour basis), and help mapping out a future in a way that feels attainable.
Here in Cincinnati, two organizations—Rosemary’s Babies Company (RBC) and the Cincinnati Scholar House (CSH)—are working overtime to deliver all of that and more. RBC focuses on helping single parents ages 13–19 navigate life and high school; the Scholar House focuses on getting single parents ages 19 and up through college. Both organizations are helping impoverished single parents change the trajectory of their lives, and their children’s lives, by breaking the generational cycles that keep them undereducated, impoverished, and essentially trapped. This is no small task, and there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution.
Now 41 years old, Rosemary Oglesby-Henry founded RBC five years ago, but she’s been living with the effects of teen pregnancy her whole life. Like so many young women she serves, Oglesby-Henry grew up with a stressful and unstable home life. Her relationship with her dad, an addict who taught her to value education and work hard “hustling Icees” in summers, made things even more complex. She started out attending Walnut Hills High School, but, after a family move, ended up at Withrow. She had always planned to attend college, and was looking forward to “getting away from the ’hood, from my situation,” but she got pregnant at 16. “I remember being so depressed,” says Oglesby-Henry. “I felt alone.”
But “one day, when I was about six months pregnant, my daughter kicked,” says Oglesby-Henry, and suddenly, “my driving goal was to give my daughter the life of stability that I did not have.” Even though she knew she was already a statistic in many people’s eyes, a third-generation teen mom whose siblings were also teen parents, she was determined. She told herself, “My daughter’s not gonna be a teen parent.”
Her path was complex, but Oglesby-Henry kept her vow and then some. She graduated high school at 17, met her future husband at 19, and gave birth to a second child (a son). She pursued a lucrative 17-year career at the post office, moved from income-based housing to being a homeowner at 25, completed her undergraduate degree over a 10-year span, and earned a master’s degree while simultaneously working two jobs. Neither her daughter, Jaliah, nor her son, Qua’ron, now ages 25 and 20, became teen parents.
It wasn’t easy—“I look back over my own life and I’m like, How did I do that?” says Oglesby-Henry today—but through it all, she found herself wanting to help other teen parents achieve their own goals. In 1990, just before she’d come of age, teen pregnancy peaked in the U.S., when nearly 1 million girls ages 15–19 found themselves pregnant. So in grad school, “I spent two years just researching generational poverty [and] programs that were available,” says Oglesby-Henry. She soon realized there were not enough programs in place to help the teen parents who’d already had babies, and nobody actually looked at the long-term outcomes of how pregnancy impacted second and third generations of teen parents.
As she struggled to understand her own life and build a program that could help others in the same boat (roughly 3,000 children are born to teen mothers each year in Hamilton County, the RBC website says), she realized something else crucial: why this kept happening to Black families like her own. “Most minority families are taught: What happens in this house stays in this house,” she says. “It all boiled down to the family. At what point did a person in that family identify it as a problem? And what I was finding was most families don’t identify it as a problem because this is what that looks like—it’s generational.”
That realization not only helped her understand how to fix her own family’s life—“I went back and taught my sister and my brother: This is how we’re all gonna raise our kids so they’re not teen parents. We’re gonna be the first to open conversations. We’re gonna be the first to learn to communicate in a way that is not yelling and screaming and cussing”—it made her understand how to help others do the same. Between the extensive research she’d done and using her own family as a sort of pilot program, the foundation for RBC was almost fully designed and ready to implement by the time she’d earned her master’s degree.
Oglesby-Henry officially opened the nonprofit in 2016 and initially focused on offering 24-7 confidante care. “Teen parents can contact us through any social media platform or text whenever they are in need of support,” she says, whether that’s mental support, a car seat, a breast pump, diapers, or even an Uber to a doctor’s appointment. To date, the program has grown exponentially. Confidante care is still part of RBC, but so is a United Way–funded Leadership and Legacy program, which teaches life skills and goal-setting and includes a one-to-one mentoring program, and weekly Seeds to Inspire meetings (peer-to-peer learning sessions that focus on helping teen parents with relationship, parenting, and communication skills). Oglesby-Henry also offers STEM programming for kids and has started up a consignment shop for clients; soon, she’s hoping to open Holloway House, an emergency and transitional housing site where young moms like Marshall can live with their kids when they can’t live at home. All of it, she says, is aimed at teaching her teen clients responsibility, accountability, and that “nothing in this world is free.”
The numbers show a clear need for so much of Oglesby-Henry’s programming. RBC works with more than 200 clients per year (almost 900 total since the program’s inception); 90 percent of them, she says, are single mothers of color and 30 percent are homeless. To date, 99.7 percent of RBC clients report no repeat pregnancies and 100 percent have been guided toward the resources they need—be it daycare, technology, workforce development, or emotional support—to complete high school, find jobs, and move forward in a positive way.
While it’s crucial to have Oglesby-Henry focused on stabilizing teen parents, it’s equally important to have organizations in place that can pick up where RBC leaves off. Enter the Cincinnati Scholar House (CSH), which targets single parents age 19 and up who have graduated high school and are serious about earning a college degree but don’t have the financial, emotional, or childcare support they need.
On its most basic level, CSH—which is open to both single moms and dads—is a 44-unit apartment building with an on-site, five-star-rated Step Up To Quality daycare. Parents who are accepted into CSH can live there and utilize the daycare as long as they are full-time students pursuing either an associate or bachelor’s degree, with a minimum GPA of 2.0. Right now, 40 mothers and 64 children live at CSH. (Some dads showed interest initially but so far none have enrolled.)
In return, CSH offers parents a safe place to raise their families. “The majority of our parents were one step away from being homeless,” says Director of Family Support Services Felicia Sullivan, “or they were living in the attic with somebody else.” It also offers an extraordinary support system, including access to internship opportunities; job readiness training; head-of-household classes; workshops about financial literacy, cooking and nutrition, and home ownership; and even social activities. Most of all, residents receive extensive academic support, including monthly meetings with Sullivan to assess their goals and accomplishments through each semester at school.
As with RBC programs, teaching personal responsibility is a big part of CSH. Both Danielle Wagoner, a 34-year-old mother of two (a 1-year-old and a 7-year-old) who’s studying graphic design at Cincinnati State, and Cierra Jones, a 31-year-old mother of two (a 9-month-old and a 5-year-old) studying business administration at Strayer University, say it makes them feel supported and that they grow stronger when Sullivan holds them accountable for grades. But they also caution that single parents considering joining the program need to understand, as Jones says, “You’re gonna have to work for it.”
The CSH is an affiliate of Louisville, Kentucky’s Family Scholar House, which operates five main campuses in Louisville, says Family Scholar House President and CEO Cathe Dykstra; the other affiliates, including Covington’s Lincoln Grant Scholar House, are all in Kentucky. The CSH opened in June 2020, but was roughly seven years in the making—a collaborative effort between Model Group, Christ Church Cathedral (especially now-deceased parishioner Mark Sackett), and Cincinnati Union Bethel (CUB). Today, CUB runs CSH with significant volunteer and financial support from Christ Church Cathedral.
A day in the life of a single parent who lives at CSH looks something like this: On days she works, Wagoner wakes up at 6 a.m., gets herself ready and packs her baby’s bag, makes breakfast, and drops her oldest off at St. Clement School by 7:30. After that, she drops the baby off at CSH daycare and drives to Springdale to work as an aide, cleaning and running errands for an elderly client, by 8:30. When she gets off work at 11:30, she attends online classes until 1 or 2 p.m., picks her kids up from school and daycare, goes to the grocery, comes home, cooks dinner, helps her daughter with her homework, gives her kids showers, tucks them in at 8 p.m., and starts her own homework. After that, she says, “I go to bed and do it all over again.” On the side, she designs custom T-shirts. Her ultimate goal is to attend UC’s DAAP to study fashion design.
Wagoner’s schedule is grueling, but much more manageable with the support of Sullivan and Managing Director Rainie Moody. In fact, says Wagoner, just knowing “we have somebody who actually cared about where we were going, who actually cared about our studies” goes a long way toward keeping single parents focused on their end goals. Sure enough, says Dykstra, most single parents who enroll quickly realize that the Scholar House is “an environment richly focused on their success.”
As with Oglesby-Henry’s Confidante Care program, Sullivan and Moody are highly accessible to all of the parents enrolled in the CSH program. “They e-mail us all times of day and night because they know we will respond and hear them and tend to their needs as they arise,” says Sullivan. It’s the challenges of the different age groups each program targets, though, that largely differentiate the way the programs work.
The 13- to 19-year-olds Oglesby-Henry works with are not quite as focused, as any parent of a teen will attest. In fact, says Oglesby-Henry, “Kids hate programs,” so she works hard to ensure that “teens don’t look at us as a program. They’re like: ‘Oh, that’s [just] Miss Rosemary, not Rosemary’s Babies. She’ll send you an Uber. They answer a call in the middle of the night. They text. She cool.’ ”
Younger parents are also often still struggling with their own parents, who—like Marshall’s mom—are frustrated they got pregnant in the first place, or who expect them to immediately know how to act like full-blown adults just because they’ve had a baby. And finding child care at any age when you make little or no money, don’t know where to look, and rely almost solely on public transportation is easier said than done, she adds.
Fitting school into an already crammed parenting and work schedule when you’re still navigating high school is tough as well, especially because many single parents living in poverty are inadequately prepared for higher-level classes. Even in college, this is a problem. “I graduated from Withrow with honors so I assumed I’m smart,” says Oglesby-Henry. “When I went to Cincinnati State, I tested below the state standard in mathematics, so I spent two semesters having to take remedial math before I could even begin my college-level courses.” Add in the fact that “not every teen wants to go to college,” says Oglesby-Henry—a self-described admirer of CSH—and it can be tough getting teen parents to focus on what comes next.
Meantime, over at the Scholar House affiliates, their major challenge is not a fear of programs. Dykstra says they have more than 800 families on the waiting list for their four established Scholar House programs alone. The bigger obstacle: Clients who are hesitant to commit because they don’t know anyone who went to college. Once they’re in, a whole new slew of challenges pops up. CSH administrators have found that getting program participants to stick to the rules can be tough. (“I had to learn to be responsible—get up a little earlier,” says Jones, on trying to get to daycare by the 8 a.m. cutoff time.) And “sometimes the past becomes a challenge,” too, says Moody, who notes that the “No overnight guests” rule can be especially tough to follow, because “that cycle is still trying to go on,” even while participants are trying so hard to focus on finishing school.
Early on, when RBC was just up and running, Oglesby-Henry recalls a meeting with another nonprofit representative who told her: “You know why people don’t do what you do? It’s too hard.” Her response? “If we continue to do the same thing, then we will never change the generations and we will never get anything accomplished. So I’m OK with the hard.”
A few things that make dealing with “the hard” easier? “Every person needs at least one win,” says Oglesby-Henry, and “you definitely need one person in your corner,” a role that she, Sullivan, and Moody work hard to fill every day. In addition, notes Oglesby-Henry, these single parents need the help of various social service resources and tools, especially at first, when they are just getting up on their own two feet. Oglesby-Henry, Sullivan, and Moody are also seasoned pros at directing clients to services that can help meet their needs; included in that are resources to help these parents “move past their trauma,” adds Oglesby-Henry, who notes that half of RBC clients accessed mental health care through the program.
But anyone working closely with these issues also knows that social service programs alone aren’t the solution. “You’ve got to be working for your stuff, too,” says Jones. “You have to help yourself to be helped.” Having a strong spiritual grounding helps, too, says Oglesby-Henry. (Jones, as an example, reports spending time in prayer every day.) So does making sure fathers are involved in their children’s lives. In fact, RBC was originally just for teen mothers, but once Oglesby-Henry graduated, she realized “there was no support really for teen fathers, and that these relationships between the teen parent and their significant other/boyfriend/child’s father were broken because nobody taught them how to communicate.” So last year, Oglesby-Henry sponsored a panel for Black teen fathers, “Show Me How To Love,” featuring Urban League CEO Eddie Koen, Bryant Insurance Group President Ronald Bryant, and Cincinnati Police Department’s Deon Mack, all three former teen fathers themselves. And RBC also welcomes dads to weekly Seeds to Inspire learning sessions, too.
Another thing both Oglesby-Henry and CSH administrators know is that lifting yourself up is something few people are able to do alone. “I know where I came from,” says Jones. “I probably could have worked hard to get where I am right now by myself, but it probably wouldn’t have happened this fast or I probably wouldn’t have been this focused.” Bottom line? “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without them,” she says of Sullivan and Moody.
That, in a nutshell, is how Oglesby-Henry, Moody, and Sullivan all operate—meeting clients where they are and supporting them through countless challenges, but also gently pushing them, one step at a time. Because behind every woman like Rosemary Oglesby-Henry, there was once a girl like Marshall—young, inexperienced, and sometimes overwhelmed.
Even as she works to complete her high school credits, Marshall has found herself thinking differently now that she’s a mom. She worries about Prince Amauri being neglected or mistreated when she’s not around. She worries, too, about needing to leave school or work if something happens to him, and about how she will keep him off the streets as he grows older, “away from negativity” and involved instead in something fulfilling, like sports. Thinking about college or a career for herself right now seems like a far-off dream; it’s been hard enough to just get through high school math classes and find her own apartment.
Her advice to other teens who find themselves pregnant and stressed out? “If somebody’s rushing you, take your time. Do everything at your pace,” because managing two lives instead of one is harder than you think. Most of all, find someone like Oglesby-Henry to lean on for support. “Miss Rosemary helps a lot of teenage parents,” says Marshall. “She’s the mother of doing that.”