Sharonda Jenkins had a baby when she was 12.
She was a sixth-grader at Allendale Elementary School in the little town by the same name, population 3,000. And she was told her life was ruined.
“When people became aware of my situation, I was the topic of everyone’s conversation and not in a good way,” she can say today, 20 years later.
She was ostracized. She had to leave the elementary school so other students wouldn’t ask questions. Her friends’ parents didn’t want her around to lead their daughters astray.
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“Everyone had an opinion about me and how my mother should have taken me to get an abortion. It was easy for them to give their advice from the outside looking in when truthfully no one knows what they would have done until they were placed in the situation.”
Sharonda delivered a healthy baby girl. The next year she went back into the middle school, and in 2004 earned her high school diploma. Twelve years later, so did her baby, Laquisea.
“I know a lot of people can’t imagine what that was like, a baby having a baby,” she says.
Her life was already a challenge, being from one of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s poorest pockets, an hour from Ridgeland, where she lives today, and even farther from Hilton Head Island, where she could earn a paycheck.
Sharonda quickly noticed that all the blame was on her — never the boy.
“It was you, you, you — the grief I got from people,” she said. “But it takes two.”
Seared in her mind is an elderly woman telling her she wouldn’t amount to anything.
“You do look up to older people,” Sharonda said. “They are the ones who are supposed to have so much wisdom. I was 14 at the time. She was wrong. She was wrong. But at the time, being my age, and knowing her age, I believed it.”
In spite of the obstacles, Sharonda achieved a dream this past summer. She earned a practical nursing diploma from Denmark Technical College and is now working as a Licensed Practical Nurse with the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services.
“I kind of wanted to prove some people wrong,” she said.
When her nursing class covered maternity issues, Sharonda wrote a personal essay and gave it to her teacher.
Her message: Don’t shame me.
“I say again to all nurses,” she concludes in her essay, “please be sensitive to our situation because the odds are already against us, but if you ever feel the need to judge, I want to leave you with this quote:
“‘There is not enough good in the best of us to criticize the bad in the rest of us.’”
Sharonda wasn’t at home when it happened.
She was at a relative’s house, and the boy was a friend a couple of years older.
“I’m not sure how it happened,” Sharonda said. “We did not know what we were doing. But it was done.”
She was a skinny kid and had no idea she was pregnant, even when she missed menstrual cycles. In her young mind, that was a blessing.
She eventually could feel something moving inside her. She just wanted whatever it was to leave her alone and go away.
“I was very tiny,” she said. She wasn’t showing, but her breasts got larger and that led to the discovery that she was five months pregnant.
She was at a cousin’s house, where she was practically reared. A younger cousin wanted Sharonda to iron her hair. She didn’t want to, but did. The little girl saw a wet spot on Sharonda’s shirt, where her breast was leaking.
“What’s wrong with you?” the child cried.
Adults were told, and her life was never the same.
Her father was angry at first.
“What didn’t he say?” Sharonda recalls.
He did not live in the home, she said, and he blamed her mother.
The next day, he took her to the doctor.
She said she was too young to feel the joy an unborn baby’s heartbeat should bring to a mother.
“Once I saw her, that was a different story.”
When we talked about it recently, Sharonda could reflect on it as a 32-year-old married woman who has survived life’s darts.
“I wouldn’t call my daughter a mistake,” she said. “I would say that about the sex. But she didn’t ask to be here.”
She said her mother never flung a fit or shamed her.
“I know she was hurt, and maybe she did feel it was her fault. But she just stepped in and started getting things done.”
For her part, “I just wanted to make sure I did everything I could for my baby.”
The long haul
Sharonda Jenkins was a hard-working adult when Nona Valiunas met her.
It was at Ridgeland Elementary School about six years ago. Valiunas was there as a reading tutor from her home on Spring Island. Sharonda was there as the mother of her second child, Sha’mya, then a first-grader.
“The little girl was a gem — affectionate and bright — but what compelled me to stay in touch with her family was Sharonda’s exceptional character,” Valiunas said.
“At that time, Sharonda was working as an aide at The Cypress, yet she was often the only parent to show up for every conference, every little celebration — even if it meant attending after a 12-hour night shift.”
Over time, she would learn the story of the unusual mother who read every book to her child that the tutors sent home.
Sharonda’s life as a preteen mom has indeed been more difficult.
When she turned 16, she started riding the Palmetto Breeze bus to a job cleaning villas on Hilton Head Island. Those 12- to 15-hour days — getting up at 3 a.m. to catch a bus at 4 a.m. and getting home around 7 p.m. — were to buy school supplies and school clothes for a baby being raised with help from her mother and extended family.
Sharonda has worked as a housekeeper at Marriott timeshares, a cashier at Food Lion, a deli clerk at Publix and an in-home aide for elderly residents at The Cypress on Hilton Head. She said her job in housekeeping involved cleaning three multi-bedroom villas in a day by herself, but $9.38 an hour was good money for a high-schooler’s summer job 16 years ago.
A settlement from a traffic accident gave her enough money as an 11th grader to buy a used Dodge Neon subcompact car for $900 down and $168 per month for two years.
Her entire family was involved in juggling home, school and work schedules. She said her firstborn was practically considered her mother’s child. And full-day Head Start, a federal program that preps children for school, was available in Allendale when her baby turned 3.
Sharonda would later meet John Jenkins when they both worked at a Publix supermarket in Bluffton. They got married 11 years ago at the Sergeant Jasper Park in Hardeeville. They’ve built a home, and their baby is now a sixth-grader.
“I just felt like I was too smart to settle for that,” Sharonda said about her last job on Hilton Head, working as an aide.
She put enough money aside to go back to school. After a stint at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, she would later enroll at Denmark Tech. Each Monday through Thursday, she drove 90 minutes each way to the small town with an odd name up U.S. 321. She worked Saturday and Sunday, and kept Friday for herself. Her husband works long hours as well, most of it on the road.
“Sharonda’s story is a salve to me,” said Nona, the volunteer tutor. “She has refused to be bitter or downcast or discouraged. A lot of people get embittered and resentful, but she is full of optimism and perseverance. ‘Mrs. V,’ she calls me. ‘Mrs. V, I’ve got to do it. Put one foot in front of the other.’
“She makes me feel good. She is a hero to me.”
Leigh Brabham is something of a nurse to her nursing students at Denmark Tech.
“It’s a big sacrifice,” Brabham said of the course load nursing students take. “You have to put everything else in your life on hold to be in this program. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work. These girls, they cry on and off all year — they have so much on them.”
Brabham remembered Sharonda as “sweet and gentle. She has the compassion and empathy that nurses need. She’s going to make a great nurse, a really great nurse.”
Sharonda was all smiles in her white nurse’s outfit, holding her Florence Nightingale ceramic graduate lamp, when she got her degree last July. Brabham said Sharonda’s essay will continue to be read to nursing classes.
Sharonda wants to be an encouragement to others.
She is a proponent of early sex education. She tries to help others understand that life is real and that, statistically, babies having babies can overburden lives.
But she wants young mothers to know they don’t have to settle for failure.
“It’s never too late,” she said, “and it’s not the end of your life. Keep going. It may hold you back a tad because for years you focus on the baby and not yourself, but keep going.
“I don’t care what anybody says, your life is not ruined.
“I refused to be a statistic.”
Teen pregnancy in South Carolina
The number of young women (ages 15-19) who give birth in South Carolina every year.
Decline in South Carolina’s teen birth rate since peaking in 1991.
South Carolina has the 16th highest teen birth rate in the nation.
The ranking of Allendale County in 2016 teen birth rates (ages 15-19) among South Carolina’s 46 counties.
The ranking of Beaufort County in 2016 teen birth rates (ages 15-19) among South Carolina’s 46 counties.
The percentage of all teen births to 18- or 19 year olds.
The percentage of teen mothers who will earn a four-year college degree by the age of 30.
The percentage of teen mothers and their children living in poverty.
The percentage of South Carolinians who believe sex education in public schools should emphasize abstinence and teach about contraception.
Source: The South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (TeenPregnancySC.org)