Determined to make a better life
Salinda Pagan almost didn't make it.
In a rage one day, her boyfriend tried to push her out of an upper-level window of their building, she said. Pagan fought back. But the fight escalated. She said he beat her up badly and knocked her down a flight of steps. Someone called the cops and Pagan was rushed to the hospital, she said, where doctors told her she would likely miscarry from her injuries. She was 14.
"I didn't have a childhood" is how Pagan characterizes that part of her life. "I never knew my father, and my mom was not really there."
Pagan said her mom had her own issues, which caused her to be in and out of her daughter's life. Mostly out. A family friend and a stepfather took over for a while, trying to raise Pagan and her siblings. During those years, Pagan moved many times in Lancaster County, but never away from poverty and despair. And in eighth grade, with no real love or support from her family, Pagan got pregnant.
"I really wanted a baby to get the love I didn't have," recalls Pagan, now 24. "I don't regret her [her daughter], but if I could have finished school before I had a child, that would have been better."
Poor, pregnant, uneducated and a member of a minority group, Pagan was just part of a cycle that continues from one generation to the next. Or does it?
Even though Pagan was badly injured, she did not miscarry. Her daughter, Jennasely, is now a beautiful, bright 10-year-old who is at the top of her fourth-grade class. Last year Jennasely scored advanced (the highest possible) on state standardized tests in both reading and math. Her teachers call her intelligent and praise her with good reports. She's a gifted writer and talented artist. So far this school year, she's read 17 books.
"She changed my life," Pagan said about the eldest of her four daughters. "She's my hero. Knowing I could give her a better life than the one I had made me believe you can do anything if you want to."
Something in Pagan snapped on when she was pregnant, a desire, a determination to change for the good of her child. She also was referred to the Nurse Family Partnership, a public health program that supports low-income, first-time moms through their first 30 months of child rearing.
That is how I met Pagan and her daughters. My sister, Beth Cassel, was the nurse who met with Pagan every two weeks, for two-plus years.
The Nurse Family Partnership has been a successful initiative across the country for more than 20 years, helping women break from the cycle of poverty, abuse and neglect into which most are born.
"We try to teach these young moms to develop empathy in their child, to form an attachment of trust and love between child and mother, and to have regulation or consistency in their life," my sister said. "These are moms who have probably not had empathetic and consistent role models.
"You look at people who end up in prison, and they do not have empathy, attachment or regulation," she added.
The nurses teach those skills by modeling and bonding with the first-time moms, and they show up consistently every two weeks at the same place, at the same time.
Study after study has shown this particular program to be one of the most successful in its positive effect on society, including economic self-sufficiency and a reduction in everything from child abuse to incarceration among its participants.
But it was the reunion this past summer, by chance, between Pagan and her former nurse, 10 years after they first met, that piqued my interest in telling this story.
"You don't know, after they leave the program, how it's going to turn out," Cassel said. "Salinda had so many risk factors. She was so young, 14, she was poor, a minority, with few people in her life to support her. To see her with a strong attachment to her daughter and her daughter so successful, I was elated."
It was the books, Pagan said. That's what she credits.
"Nurse Beth brought me my first books, and I read to her [Jennasely], even when I was still pregnant, and I read to her every night when she was a baby," Pagan recalled. "I became very determined. Life made me stronger."
Although Pagan struggled herself in several schools, labeled "special ed," she managed to graduate at the age of 21.
"I tell my kids that I struggle to provide you with what you need, but you need to go to school and get an education and a good job so you do not have to struggle," said Pagan, now employed by a beauty supply house and in a loving, committed relationship. "And don't worry about boys until you have graduated from college."
Jennasely, who speaks with the cadence of someone who is thoughtful and intelligent, agrees. "I want to get a good education, but I don't worry about the negatives, I like to concentrate on the positives and my writing and art."
She shows me a long and lovely poem she has just written.
"This is what you hope for," Beth Cassel said of Pagan and her daughter. "You hope and pray that they are OK. To see her and her daughter and their bond was like seeing the sun bursting through the clouds."
A former Lancaster Newspapers reporter, Susan Baldrige taught English in public schools for the past eight years. She is a correspondent for LNP. Send comments to email@example.com.