This story is the second installment in a blog series by AmeriCorps VISTA Michelle Maxberry. As part of her year of full-time service at South Carolina First Steps, Michelle is gathering and sharing stories of young children, families, and communities served by local First Steps nonprofits across the state. Photo by Amira Hulwe.
Meet Rushell and her son, Tristian. They are residents of Blackville, a small, rural community in Barnwell County, South Carolina. To fully appreciate their fantastic journey, one must travel back to 2016 before celebrating their current success. Rushell was just 14 years old when she became a mom. When her baby’s father was incarcerated, she felt even more alone and desperately needed a lifeline.
Rushell’s story is not uncommon. In 2016, Barnwell County had one of the highest rates of teenage childbearing in the state. Becoming a parent at such a young age can have long-term negative effects for both the mother and newborn. Fortunately, Rushell found needed support through First Steps. It was a serendipitous encounter with Trina Burt, a Barnwell County First Steps parent educator that provided her with guidance, resources, and the confidence to navigate the challenges of young motherhood.
Trina was conducting a parenting workshop at a local apartment complex where Rushell was visiting a friend. Trina introduced Rushell to Early Steps to School Success, a program designed to provide high-quality early childhood development services to young children and families living in under-resourced and underserved communities. Rushell enrolled and now credits her growth as a parent and Tristian’s developmental successes, in part, to this program.
"His first word was ‘star,' just like in his favorite book, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," Rushell recalls. She beams as she talks about how much Tristian enjoyed having Trina read him that story during most of her home visits. Trina was also instrumental in helping Rushell wean her son from the pacifier and the bottle, which is essential to dental health.
"I'm so glad I was in 'The Gardens' that day because it changed my life," Rushell says.
The year is now 2023. Tristian, now seven, is a happy, well-adjusted second grader. We met him on a warm, sunny July day at the Barnwell County Library, where he had asked his mom to bring him to get a book. He readily engaged with Amira, AmeriCorps Vista photographer for South Carolina First Steps, as she captured candid photos of him. His confidence, warm personality, and polite speech are a testament to the power of a committed parent coupled with the invaluable support of community-based developmental programs.
Mom is thriving too. She is an applicant for the Pharmacy Technician certificate program at Denmark Technical College and a former Certified Nursing Assistant student. That training allows her to work in the home healthcare industry to support her small family. Rushell and Tristian receive love and support from Rushell’s mother and a village of extended family and friends. She is also in a healthy, committed relationship with a young man who fully embraces his role as a stepfather and co-parent.
Across the state, First Steps offers a range of programs that help families raise children to be healthy, safe, learning, and ready for school. Rushell’s story is a testament to the life-changing impact these programs can have, turning challenges into triumphs and forging brighter futures for young families.