At 15, Donna Henry had just been named the Pioneer Days queen, and for the first time in her life, she was one of the popular kids in school.
She was an honor student, and she hoped one day to be a physical therapist.
And then she got pregnant. Her whole life changed overnight.
Unfortunately, such stories are common in Cass County, which has a teen birth rate that is out of control.
Experts say the national rate, which is 34 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, is higher than many Third World countries. The state rate is even higher at just above 37 births per 1,000 girls.
The county rate, though, blows those rates out of the water. The number of births per 1,000 teenage girls in Cass County now stands at 53.
The teenage pregnancy task force of an organization called Better Health for Cass County is hoping to cut that number dramatically. One way to start might be to have Henry share her story at schools throughout the county.
She shared it last week at a session that drew about 20 teenagers and adults to the Area Five children’s center.
Henry grew up in Royal Center in the 1960s and ’70s. Her parents never talked about sex, she said. They couldn’t even say the word out loud.
To her surprise, though, Henry’s parents, when she finally got up the nerve to talk to them about her dilemma, were supportive.
“My dad actually said, out loud, ‘Do you want to get an abortion?’” Henry recalled.
Henry said no. She planned to keep the baby.
Her dad asked if she and the child’s father planned to get married.
“Well, that was a given,” Henry recalled. “In 1975, that was a given.”
Pregnant girls in 1975 were not allowed to attend school. Henry had to take classes from home.
Her husband did go to school during the day, and he worked evenings at a Logansport shoe store, bringing home $30 a week. With help from their parents, the young family managed to survive.
After her child was born, Henry went back to school, determined to earn her diploma with the rest of her class.
“I’d already mortified my mom and dad,” she said. “I wanted to do something that would make them proud of me.”
It wasn’t easy.
“I remember hearing my old friends talking about going cruising, going to the prom, going out on dates. I had to go home to take care of my baby.”
One in three pregnant girls finishes high school, Henry said, but she beat the odds. Her challenges, though, were far from over.
“When I walked across the stage, I was pregnant again,” she recalled.
Two years later, Henry had baby number three.
She told her audience that most teenage marriages end in divorce. Hers was no exception.
“By now I was 26 years old, and I had three kids,” she said. “I decided it was time to make something of myself.”
She had earned an associate’s degree in nursing by the time she was 30, and in 2007, she earned a bachelor’s degree. She’s been a registered nurse for 22 years.
Henry encourages today’s parents to talk to their kids about sex, and she stressed to the teenagers in last week’s audience that there’s only one sure-fire way to avoid getting pregnant: Don’t have sex.
Beyond having that frank discussion with their own kids, she said, parents can do one more thing for their teenagers: Make them proud of themselves.
“Kids do make mistakes, and we need to ask them what they learned from those mistakes,” she said, “but they also make wonderful decisions, and we need to focus on that.”
She wants the teenagers of today to know that it is possible to overcome the odds, but she hopes they won’t have to.
“It’s way too hard,” she said.
• Kelly Hawes is managing editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.