The mother in a photograph accompanying a story about Mary's Center on Page 6 of Thursday's District Weekly was misidentified. She is Concepcion Escobar. Her son's name is Ever. (Published 11/18/90)

Ana Ruth Murillo, a shy 18-year-old who speaks no English, moved to Washington from El Salvador this year and found herself six weeks pregnant, with little money and without health insurance.

By all odds, her first encounter with prenatal care might have been the standard preparations for delivery in a hospital maternity ward 7 1/2 months later.

Instead, Murillo received low-cost, regular checkups, classes in the birthing process and a chance to meet other pregnant girls and young mothers who speak her language in a new program for teenagers at Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care in Adams-Morgan.

Last month, she gave birth at Columbia Hospital to a healthy, 6-pound 10-ounce baby boy named Oscar Alexander.

"The Mary's Center midwife was there for me . . . . She helped me through every step," Murillo said through a translator.

Murillo is among an estimated 4,000 teenagers in the city who arrive here pregnant or get pregnant each year and whose prospects for having a robust, full-term baby often are bleak. Health authorities say immigrant teenagers, especially those who are undocumented, are particularly at risk because they are afraid to seek prenatal care. Yet, lack of prenatal care is considered the leading cause of low birth weight, infant medical problems and infant deaths.

What the teenage mothers ignore is that "maternal prenatal care is the biggest investment a woman can make -- irrespective of the legal status of the child that is going to be born," said Arlene Gillespie, former director of the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs who founded Mary's Center.

Lucky for Murillo, she arrived here shortly after the two-year-old Mary's Center started an experimental program for pregnant teenagers in January.

On one of her first visits last spring, she watched the staff deliver the first baby to be born at the center, an experience that quickly replaced her fears with anticipation.

"I remember feeling very happy, very excited." she said softly.

Murillo's care and classes were made possible by a $190,000-a-year grant for three years from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under the program, appropriately dubbed "Para Ti," meaning "For You," 50 expectant teenage mothers and new teen mothers are receiving care and counseling.

"Mary's Center is a wonderful place. I wouldn't be able to go through this without their help," said Rosemarie Menjivar, a senior at Wilson High School who got Para Ti prenatal care and now brings her baby in for checkups.

Gillespie started Mary's Center with a $250,000 grant from the city with the idea of creating a bilingual, midwifery-based program that would offer continuous care from the time a woman becomes pregnant until her child is 5 years old.

She said her inspiration was rooted in frustration over the city's infant mortality rate, which is higher than the rate in any state and especially problematic among Latin American refugees. She decided an alternative was needed to impersonal public health clinics, a place where health-care providers would offer low-income, Spanish-speaking expectant mothers the sort of medical, cultural and emotional support that would make them come back regularly.

She advocated the use of midwives, both for the patient rapport they establish and for their lower health-care costs.

Shortly after the center opened, she applied for a grant to start a teen program, noting that teen pregnancy in the District, which is twice as high as the national average, is also a special problem for refugees.

"We knew we had the best program, but we didn't have the capability of serving teenagers," Gillespie said.

The teens in Para Ti are all from families of recent immigrants.

Some are as young as 13, and most were not using birth control when they became pregnant, according to center records. Most heard about the program from a relative, a school counselor or a social worker.

"We concentrate on getting them back into school or joining the work force, and finding day-care slots for the infants," said Mary's Center director Maria Gomez. "We need to give teenagers positive self-esteem and get them back with their peers. Another goal is family planning so that, hopefully, the next child will not be born during the teen years."

The atmosphere in the center, a cheery ground floor of an apartment building at 1844 Columbia Rd. NW., is clean, comfortable and friendly, with Panamanian embroidery beside children's art on the walls, a parrot mobile over the entrance and a pretty bassinet in one corner.

When a new mother brings in her baby, the entire staff rushes to shower admiring attention, gushing over tiny hands or a full head of hair as if these were the babies of friends, not clients.

The teenagers meet there once a week for classes taught by Lydia Mendoza, the center's education director, who covers topics ranging from nutrition and breast feeding to birth control, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.

"We also talk about values and the decision-making process. I want to give them self-esteem," Mendoza said. "I try to empower them and talk to them about taking responsibility."

Mendoza said she also encourages them to join "First Friends," a volunteer program at a nearby social services center called The Family Place, which matches experienced mothers with pregnant teens for support and friendship. Volunteers call once a week, visit at least once a month, accompany the teenager to initial visits to Mary's Center and offer "someone to talk to during hard times," said First Friends coordinator Yolanda Brewster.

Maria Elena Orrego, program director of The Family Place, said Para Ti fills a tremendous need in the community for "families who migrated here in the last 10 years with little children who are now old enough to have children."

In many Latin American countries, she explained, it is not uncommon for a 14- or 15-year-old to give birth. "There, the grandmother and the aunts help take care of the child. But here there's no grandmother or aunt -- just the mother who is working two or three jobs and sees the new baby as one more mouth to feed," she said.

Cultural values and religious upbringing also prevent most Latino teenagers from choosing abortion or adoption. Every teen in the program plans to raise her baby herself, most together with the father, but others with the support of a family member.

Center director Gomez said she believes Para Ti works "because there is a method and there is follow-up." All the babies born to Para Ti mothers to date have been healthy ones.

Rita Soler Ossolinski, acting executive director of the Office of Latino Affairs, said the program works because it educates the young women to be responsible for their own health care.

"You walk in there," she said, "and it doesn't look like a facility for low income {women}. It looks top-notch, and that's the way they treat their patients. It's not that the program has more dollars than others, it doesn't. But it has a philosophy that quality health care should be given to everyone."

Everyone includes 18-year-old Concepcion Escobar, who has had to learn self-reliance since her husband returned to El Salvador shortly before her baby was born six months ago.

"If he comes back, I'll go back with him. If not, I'll be alone with the baby. But here I learn about how to take care of my baby," she said of the center. Although she has relatives here who help her financially, the center has helped her meet other young women her age with whom she has "had conversations I've never been able to have" anywhere.

"We have the key," Gillespie said, nodding. "What we need {now} is a Mary's Center One, Mary's Center Two and Mary's Center Three."