June 17, 2019

Mitzvah Project Helps Pregnant Teens Get ‘Smart’ Start

Abigail Kuhns was not even 12 years old when she became a budding women’s rights activist.

“I read this magazine article about women’s rights and why they are the cause of our time,” said the seventh-grader, now 13. “The stories were from places where women’s rights are not important. I read it and realized I need to help.”

It would be another year before she found her opportunity. Preparing for her bat mitzvah at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, Abigail was introduced by her rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, to a program called Smart Beginnings.

Also located in Pacific Palisades, Smart Beginnings is a privately funded program that works with pregnant L.A. County teens to teach them how to care for themselves and their babies throughout the pregnancy and how to prepare for parenthood. A few fathers also participate in the program.

The program’s founder, Michelle Leclaire O’Neill, was thrilled to have the help of a local teen.

“We met with Abigail and her mother, and she was so willing to help,” O’Neill said.

Abigail drafted a letter to send to her bat mitzvah guests. In it, she reiterated the importance of the cause, and why she believed that their donations would be money well spent.

“Some of these girls have been mistreated or raised in abusive circumstances,” the letter read. “Many of these young women do not have access to proper medical care and counseling. Smart Beginnings helps fulfill all of these needs.”

Within weeks, the organization started receiving donations.

“I thought that maybe a handful of people would make a donation,” said Paula Kuhns, Abigail’s mother. “It turned out to be much, much greater than that.”

Smart Beginnings was founded in May 2008. O’Neill, a registered nurse, was teaching hypno-birthing and childbirth in Pacific Palisades when a pregnant teen was referred to her by a friend. The young woman, now 24, went on to speak across the country about her experiences, and is now about to graduate from college.

Through working with the young mom, O’Neill recognized a need in the community that she may be able to help fill.

“I said, ‘I think I’m going to start a program for other kids like this,’ ” she said. O’Neill was able to raise $10,000 to get the program off the ground, and recruited 10 pregnant teens, primarily from schools like Los Angeles’ St. Anne’s, which serves as a haven for young women who are pregnant.

The group began meeting whenever funding would allow. The first meeting was a three-day retreat in which the girls learned about the mind-body connection and the importance of their infant’s time spent in utero.

Since then, Smart Beginnings has met nearly once a month, each girl being driven to Pacific Palisades for a day and back home in the evening.

The program begins with an hour and a half of group therapy, during which the young women share what’s going on in their lives. O’Neill said this segment was one of the most difficult to get started. “The kids barely even spoke. They sat on different sides of the room,” she said.

Now, after knowing one another for more than two years, watching one another go through giving birth and raising babies, “they are like sisters.”

Following group therapy, O’Neill brings in a specialist to address the group. Presenters have included lactation experts, speakers from Planned Parenthood and instructors on providing infant massage. Throughout the day, the girls are given three healthy meals made with organic foods.

Shalanda Foster, 23, has been part of the group since its inception. “I started coming around 2008,” said the mother of two. “I was about eight-and-a-half months pregnant.”

Foster, whose children are now 6 and 2, expected to learn basic birthing techniques like Lamaze. Instead, she said, she’s learned how to care for herself and her children holistically. “I never did yoga,” she said, as an example. “I was interested in doing it but never had a chance to.” Through Smart Beginnings, she was able to learn a basic practice.

But more than that, Foster said, the program has helped her find her own voice. “[O’Neill] kind of helps you to find yourself,” Foster said. “If you don’t know yourself, I don’t know how you’re gonna make it in this life.”

The cost of holding a meeting is about $700, O’Neill said. By last count, Abigail’s letter had raised more than $1,000, which is more than enough to pay for another day of learning.

Yet Abigail feels there’s still more work to be done.

“Teen pregnancy has increased recently, so it’s important to raise awareness for it and help people in this situation,” she said. “We cannot just ignore it and act like it’s not happening — it won’t make it go away.”