A handful of students sits in a St. Mary's County classroom looking at a list of vocabulary words on the blackboard: kindergarten, kitchen, knowledge, labor, language.
The students at the Family Center of St. Mary's are women whose aspirations and challenges revolve around those words. They are all young mothers studying to earn their GEDs and dreaming of good careers while struggling to care for and support a family.
After a morning of GED and computer classes, the women pick up their children from the playroom, make lunch and eat with the youngsters. Then they return for more classes in parenting, "life skills," job hunting and computers.
"I never thought I would enjoy learning, but I'm here every day, because it's fun," said 23-year-old Debbie Thomas, mother to a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. "And throughout the day, we're with the children."
The Family Center is a nonprofit agency supported by the Tri-County Youth Services Bureau and Friends of the Family, a Baltimore agency that administers other family centers in Maryland. Located in Lexington Park, the center targets parents under 26 and offers day care for children under the age of 4. Eight to 10 students earn their GEDs each year.
The program combines free classes, child care, transportation, a home-visitation program and support groups to make learning available to as many as 50 families a year. While most students are women, the Family Center welcomes men, and its staff would like to reactivate a defunct support group for fathers if enough interest develops. More than half of the women are raising their children alone, said director Pat Morales.
"Our reason for being is to help teens and young adults to be better parents," Morales said. "Part of that might be getting a GED to get a better job to provide for your child."
Flexibility and support are key ingredients, explained Morales, since countless obstacles can keep a young mother from class. That's why the center tries to keep its refrigerator stocked, though its limited budget allows only sandwiches. And it's why the door is still open to a student who hasn't been seen in months.
The center's van is the only transportation that many of the mothers have to leave home each day. The driver, Billy Baker, spends four or five hours a day picking up families in the morning and dropping them off after classes. He takes one or two to work in the middle of the day, offers rides to job interviews and makes the occasional diaper run.
"If it's bad in elementary school, think how hard it is" for these women to concentrate on work or even show up in the morning, said Morales. "We're talking about fractions when they're thinking, 'How am I going to feed this baby?' "
When the Family Center's staff of about 10 people bend over backward, their effort does not go unnoticed. The women who attend classes gush about their teachers, about how respectful and patient they are. Two mothers fret during lunch that the staff is not well paid and wonder who they could write to and lobby for the teachers to get a raise.
"I definitely would have stayed in school if I had teachers like this," said Cheryl Wilson, 25, of Coltons Point, who dropped out when she was in ninth grade.
Thomas quit school in 10th grade and said she never had the drive to keep any job for long. The center, however, has changed her outlook.
"Now I have the option to be a nurse, and that's my dream," Thomas said. "Just by being here, I can see it happening in about two years, making good money."
Tonya Chase, 24, the Family Center's child development specialist, is a role model for some of the program's clients. She came to the center as a student. Now she has a staff position, attends Charles County Community College full time, and takes care of her three children.
"I love to tell my story, and [the students] love to hear it," Chase said. "They feel like it's them. My life is not that much different than theirs."
The Family Center helps the development of children as well as adults, said one student, Gissel Hein of La Plata, who used to stay at home with her 2-year-old son Anthony.
"Before I brought him here, he was so shy, and he would cry just if he saw me going to the kitchen," Hein said. "Now he's so social, and he doesn't cry the way he used to. Now it will be easier for him to go to day care."
The Family Center is raising money for a new, $800,000 facility, Morales said. It is also seeking volunteers, especially those with experience in nutrition, administrative work or any other relevant specialty.
CAPTION: Mothers under age 26 attend the Family Center of St. Mary's to study for their GEDs and learn other life skills needed for employment, taught by instructors such as Patricia Sawyer, right.
CAPTION: Cheryl Wilson, left, receives a handout during a class on employment at the Lexington Park center for young women.
CAPTION: Lucy Morgan, above right, who is pregnant with her second child, holds son James Robert Morgan, 1. James is enrolled in the center's day-care program along with Kaitlyn Thomas, 2, at left, who is cooling down her macaroni and cheese.