MELD Provides Support to Young Moms

By Laurie A. Kaiser

To join a MELD Young Moms group or find out how you can become a MELD facilitator, call 434-1350 or email Arlynn Ellis at
When Vanessa Alcatara discovered she was pregnant, she felt consumed by fear. She was only 16 years old and a junior at Jefferson High School. Alcatara stayed in school and gave birth to son Louis, but was flooded with doubts.

“I wondered, ‘How can I provide for my child? How can I finish school and be a good parent?’” says Alcatara, now a confident 23-year-old who is planning for college.

She found answers, support, and other insights into motherhood, through Mutual Enrichment through Learning and Discovery (MELD) for Young Moms, a free parenting program sponsored by Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas. Participants range in age from 13 to 24.
They can start participating when they are pregnant and are encouraged to continue until their child is at least 2 years old. 

A Neutral Space
 As a “peer-facilitated support group” MELD operates under the principle that parents can learn from other parents, explains Arlynn Ellis, MELD for Young Moms site coordinator.

 “They share the struggles of being a parent,” Ellis says. “They can talk about the decisions they have made without being judged.”

Alcatara says she found she could talk openly about the challenges of young motherhood with the dozen others students who met for two hours weekly at a church across the street from her high school.

Along with the peer facilitator (usually a mother who has walked in the participants’ shoes), a professional from Methodist Healthcare leads the group. Ellis has a marketing and lay ministry background; most other leaders are social workers or psychologists. Visiting professionals speak to the group, as well, on topics ranging from domestic violence to birth control.

 “One speaker who came in talked about [how to receive] child support and it helped me a lot,” says Alcatara, who married her son’s father but later divorced.

Life Lessons
MELD, part of a nationwide organization that has operated in San Antonio for more than 10 years, operates under the philosophy that parents need to be free to make informed decisions, Ellis says. It now is offered at sites spread throughout the metro area and the Rio Grande Valley.

Participants learn why babies cry and how to cope. They learn how to deal with a difficult boyfriend and how to find low-income housing and other available services. Free childcare is provided during the meetings.

Alcatara says some of the pamphlets and books brought into the group helped her learn how to discipline her toddler son. “I’d learned to stand eye-to-eye with my son, to get on his level to talk to him,” she says. “We learned a lot of options beside spanking and screaming.”

Ellis notes that it’s imperative to reach out to this underserved population of parents who may have no other support. 

“Everybody has a chance to talk and share experiences,” Ellis says. “We are not teaching anybody; we are facilitating topics so they can make informed decisions.

“Everything we talk about is confidential,” she adds.

While most moms participate voluntarily, about 20 percent are required by Child Protective Services (CPS) to attend parenting classes, such as MELD, either because CPS is monitoring their home situation or has already placed their children in foster care.

“The majority of parents whose kids were taken away get them back after taking the class,” Ellis notes.

What makes MELD groups unique is their long-term focus and grouping of parents with similar needs and ages of children. MELD for Growing Families functions as an extension of the Young Moms group. It serves mothers of children ages 3 and up. MELD for Young Dads is geared toward fathers in their teens and early 20s. MELD Special serves parents of children with a wide range of illnesses and disabilities.

More than 80 percent of participants stay with MELD for two years or longer. “They develop friendships in these groups,” says Ellis, adding that MELD goes beyond informational meetings. The group takes field trips with their kids during the year and gets together for events, such as one celebrating the beginning of school. 

Passing the Knowledge On
With the support of the group, Alcatara finished high school, got a part-time job and is planning to pursue college and a teaching career. She also has remarried, bought a house, and she and her new husband had a son three years ago.

I’ve been through a lot and don’t think I’d be where I am now, without the motivation to keep going,” she says.

Now Alcatara volunteers as a peer group facilitator for MELD, counseling other young mothers in the place where she received support – Jefferson High.

“I see these girls in my shoes,” she says. “I don’t want to talk about myself so much as ask questions of them and just listen.”

She says this is what MELD facilitators and participants did for her. “What I always needed was to have someone hear me.”

Laurie A. Kaiser is the former editor of Our Kids.
First published June 2007 in Our Kids San Antonio.