This story is part of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina’s “Changemakers” series—where we travel the state to find people making a difference in the health of their communities and share their inspiring stories.
For a woman, double lines on a pregnancy test can spark a flood of emotions, ranging from immediate and immense joy to shock and fear. Becoming pregnant is life changing. It impacts your priorities, your health, your finances and your lifestyle. But, for pregnant girls in their teens, the impact can be life-threatening, too.
Cassie Ward can relate, as she had a high-risk pregnancy at a young age. She was also homeless and alone. Still, her strength, determination and hope pulled her through. As did a helping hand.
Not everyone gets that help, though, as services for pregnant teens are few and far between. They are in desperate need of shelter, health care and support. Ward, an employee at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) and a church pastor – knows this firsthand.
Girls who grow up in poverty or who suffer childhood abuse, neglect or family instability are more likely to become pregnant as teens. In certain settings such as foster care, teens are more than twice as likely to become pregnant than those not in the foster care system.
And then, there are those who have no place to call home.
A 2018 study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago concluded that “many pregnant and parenting youth are experiencing or at risk for homelessness.” Fifty-five percent of women aged 13-17 experiencing homelessness, reported being a parent or being pregnant.
Furthermore, teen pregnancy brings higher risks of life-threatening conditions such as eclampsia, systemic infections, low birth weight, preterm birth and a slew of neonatal issues.
These environmental and medical factors are a big part of Ward’s own experience.
Growing up in Wilson, NC, Ward’s father abandoned her family while she was young. She and her two brothers were raised by a single mother, who endured domestic abuse in relationships. As a young child, Ward was sexually molested, causing trauma, shame and depression that lasted for decades. She coped by holding tight to her Christian faith and striving for perfection by excelling in academics and sports. “That’s how I escaped from what happened to me – making sure I was the best at whatever I put my mind to,” she said.
With all signs pointing toward a brighter adulthood, Ward still found herself vulnerable to the cycles created by childhood trauma; falling into abusive relationships, just as her mother had. She became pregnant in 1996 at the age of 21, welcoming a son. Despite her happiness at becoming a mother, it added immense strain to the already dysfunctional relationship she had with her soon-to-be husband. By 2000, she was homeless, living in her car with her young son, pregnant with a baby girl. The stress of juggling motherhood, work, and a volatile marriage ultimately landed her in the hospital during the fifth month of her pregnancy. When it came time for her discharge, she had no home address to provide. So, she phoned her friend, Lelia Brewington, who welcomed her into her own home.
Ward and her children stayed with Brewington’s family for six months. During that time, she was working for Blue Cross NC as a Customer Service Advocate, saving enough money to secure her own apartment, but still suffering mental and verbal abuse at the hands of her husband. “I was convinced that no matter what happened in this marriage, I could fix it. I didn’t want my children to grow up in a one-parent home like I did,” Ward says. “I was in my thirties before it finally hit me: ‘This is not your fault.’”
She credits her children for helping get through her darkest moments.
“All those times I felt like I wasn’t loved… my son would jump in my lap and just hug me, kiss me all over [and say], ‘I love you, Mama. I love you.’ This is the reason why I want to keep going on and do great things. Because I want him to one day look at me and say, ‘Mama, you did that’.”
In 2013, divorced and wanting a fresh start, she moved back to her hometown, still building her career at Blue Cross NC. She also continued her church ministry, where she met many young women struggling with the same kind of pain she had felt. She enrolled in free business courses at the local community college, taking every class she could, readying herself to execute a decision that she had made long ago – to pay forward the generosity that Brewington had shown her years before.
“When Lelia welcomed me into her home, I felt like it was heaven itself coming down, rescuing me. That’s why I came up with Heavenly Rescued,” Ward says. Founded in 2018, the nonprofit provides assistance to pregnant females from the ages of 13 to 23, experiencing homelessness, displacement and abuse. Through stable living environments, educational advancement support, parenting skills and job training, Heavenly Rescued teaches teens and women just entering adulthood to become self-sufficient and functional mothers.
Ward began by housing mothers-to-be in her home. Two years later, she rented a larger four-bedroom house – known as the Maternity Home – a place filled with stuffed animals, blankets, clothing and other small comforts for soon-to-be mothers. Here, residents can experience stability and care throughout their pregnancy and up to six months postpartum.
To date, Heavenly Rescued has had more than 30 teens and young women pass through its doors, bringing with them their own terrible baggage: poverty, abuse, rape and the psychological damage that comes with each.
“The younger the teen, the more attention is needed,” Ward says. “Most of them have either dropped out of school or are not doing well in school; therefore, tutoring is a must. They’re also more mentally and emotionally scarred than the older mothers. They require more family and one-on-one counseling, as well as parenting and developmental skills.”
Through a network of resources that Ward has created, these mothers-to-be receive therapy, career training, parenting courses and financial education. Ward also supports young mothers in obtaining their GED through the local community college’s program offering. And, along the way, Ward and her team step in to teach these young women self-love and self-care that they can then pass on to their child.
Joy Chavis is one of many women who have found a new path through Heavenly Rescued.
Fresh out of high school, Chavis found out she was pregnant. Her baby’s father immediately left her, and she was kicked out of her family home. “I had no job, no money and only a high school education,” she says. Chavis’s grandmother, Betti Brown, was a member of Ward’s ministry and introduced the two.
With support from Ward and Heavenly Rescued, Chavis welcomed a daughter, mended her relationship with her mother, found a secure job and saved enough money for her own apartment. “I could never repay Pastor Cassie,” she says, “I feel like there is hope for me.”
Through donations from organizations, congregations and individuals, five young mothers have received their GED, and five others have obtained jobs based on the organization’s training program. Twelve are now living independently. As Ward notes, it’s simply “one person at a time.”
Many of Ward’s co-workers have contributed to Heavenly Rescued through Blue Cross NC’s GivingWorks program, which matches individual donations to maximize an employee’s impact on their community.
“GivingWorks is one of the most tangible ways our employees connect with our purpose,” says Sophie McMillian, a member of the Community & Diversity Enagement team at Blue Cross NC. “Folks will share stories about how a nonprofit changed their life, or where they give in honor of a family member, or, in cases like Cassie, where they spend all their free time helping their community. Over the past 10 years, GivingWorks has raised $17.2 million dollars for a variety of organizations, including Heavenly Rescued. That’s incredible to see.”
Ward, who has worked at Blue Cross NC for more than two decades, is now a compliance officer in the Corporate Pharmacy department. She praises the company for allowing her to commit more time to Heavenly Rescued and achieve a doctoral degree in theology from Manna College. “If I didn’t have that flexibility, I really don’t think I could even do this.”
Ward’s commitment to the young women she helps is everlasting. Her deep understanding of their trials, fears, shame and brokenness is what keeps her welcoming them in with open arms, an open heart and an open door – so that when their babies arrive, they’re swaddled in hope.