At Center for Healthy Families, teen parents find support, resources, education

Center for Healthy Families serves as a one-stop resource hub for pregnant teenagers in the Columbus region.

Steve Wartenberg
For Columbus CEO
Toshia Safford, president and CEO, Center for Healthy Families

The idea for Center for Healthy Families began with Donna James in 2006. “I was inspired by two social workers working with pregnant and parenting teens in the community, and they told me about how there wasn’t enough support for them,” says James, who at the time was preparing to retire as a top executive from Nationwide and would eventually open Lardon & Associates, a consulting firm. “What really got me was the story of a young, teen mom who would ride the city bus all day, so she didn’t have to go home where there wasn’t a great situation.”

Soon after this initial discussion, James met with Toshia Safford, a behavior specialist at Crittenton Family Services. Like many others, Safford sought career guidance from James, who has mentored dozens of women. “She was telling me about her conversation with the two social workers and I said, ‘I’ll help you,’” Safford recalls, not knowing the offer would change the course of her career.

Safford started researching the issue and quickly learned “there were probably 1,800 girls in this city in this position every year,” she says of teen pregnancy. “More than 65 percent live in poverty, the vast majority are Black and the high school graduation rate is less than 30 percent, and less than three percent receive a college degree by the age of 30.”

As James listened to Safford, “the voice inside my head” shouted that this was the woman to lead a new organization to address this issue: Center for Healthy Families. “She had the behavioral health and fundraising background, the experience and the passion,” James says.

The center opened in 2008. The goal was to coordinate the available services in the city for pregnant teenage girls. There were already several local nonprofits offering services, but “they were all in their own silos,” Safford explains. “We wanted to integrate it into a one-stop shop for medical care, housing, childcare, education, transportation. And now, good news, we’re getting great outcomes that exceed the national averages. An estimated 1,000 girls give birth each year, 38 percent of the teen girls who have a child before the age of 18 earn a high school diploma by the age of 22. I know these stats are hard to hear, but the reality is teen pregnancy often initiates a cycle of poverty for women.”

Center for Healthy Parents partners with Columbus organizations

The center has 12 “core” partners, including Action for Children, Directions for Youth Families, Moms2B, Columbus City Schools and the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corp. OhioHealth is another important partner and provides two clinics for young moms and their babies at Grant Medical Center and Riverside Methodist Hospital. “This leads to better care for mothers and babies instead of them having to go to the emergency room,” Safford says, adding many women continue to see the physicians they meet at Grant and Riverside long after their babies are born.

Initially, there was some resistance from other organizations to the new nonprofit. “It did take us a while to educate people on our model of linking existing systems,” James says. “It wasn’t that there was a lack of services, what was missing was connecting them.”

The center’s resource advocates develop a one-on-one relationship with every client and guide them through the services available within the center and at its partner organizations for a two-year period. Over the years, this has added up to more than 10,000 people receiving help. The vast majority (96 percent) are young mothers, but there are also young fathers who want to be part of their child’s life.

The center has also formed an advocacy group to address changes in public policy that would benefit the women they work with. “How do we build public will around the issues so many Black girls face?” Safford asks rhetorically. “How can we engage and educate our community and make sure Black girls reach their full potential?”

At times, this can seem like an overwhelming goal in a society filled with disproportionate wealth, systemic racism and a general lack of opportunity for those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

“Absolutely, it’s overwhelming, but we have to change this narrative that’s linked to the history of slavery in their country,” Safford says. “We have to have courageous conversations and build public will and partner with organizations throughout the city, county and state … When I see amazing Black women in leadership positions in our country, that shouldn’t be rare.”

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.

Center for Healthy Families

500 S. Front St., Columbus 43215

Mission: Help parenting teens deliver healthy babies, continue their education, find meaningful housing and employment, become self-sufficient and lead.

President & CEO: Toshia Safford

Employees: 21

Annual Budget: $3.5 million