REDWOOD CITY -- When Mayerlin "Mayi" Genchi was 14, her only responsibility was homework. As long as she took care of that, her mother would save money to put her through college.
Just one year later, she found out she was pregnant, and studying seemed like the least of her concerns. Today, she is an 18-year-old working mother and part-time college student. Homework is one of seemingly endless responsibilities in a life wrenched off course by an all-too-simple mistake.
Genchi became pregnant the first time she had sex, at 15. She and her boyfriend hadn't talked much about intercourse beforehand, and both were naive about birth control.
After struggling with depression and her family's disappointment, Genchi eventually regained her footing. She now has a 2-year-old son, works full-time as a secretary and takes second-year classes at Foothill College in Los Altos.
And for the past two years, she has shared her experience with hundreds of middle and high school students in southern San Mateo County, trying to keep them from following the same path.
Genchi is one of 13 teen parents who participated this year in the Teen Parent Panel, a key facet of a two-week, comprehensive sex-education course offered by a nonprofit called Teen Talk Sexuality Education. The youths, drawn from Redwood High School, a continuation school in Redwood City, lay out the sobering reality of teen parenthood and discuss the importance of birth control.
Teen Talk officials say the panel is the only one of its kind in the Bay Area, though San Francisco is getting a similar idea off the ground. The speakers are uniquely qualified, one expert said, to reach kids who are becoming, or about to become, sexually active.
"Whether we like it or not, about 1 in 7 kids in the U.S. has sex before they turn 15," said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "Teen parents can be among the most powerful messengers when it comes to the value of delaying pregnancy and parenthood."
Sharing their stories
At a recent panel at Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City, Genchi and fellow teen parent Karla Flores briefly shared their stories, then took questions from a group of several dozen students.
They talked about the experience of being pregnant, judged by members of their families and whispered about by their peers. Genchi said she thought having a baby would bring her and her boyfriend closer together; instead, it drove them apart. She explained why, after considering adoption, she decided to keep her son.
"I kept my son thinking that he was always going to make me happy, he would never leave me, which is not a reason why you should have a baby," she said, adding she wasn't thinking at the time about the difficulty and stress of caring for another human being.
Genchi emphasized in a later interview that she doesn't regret having Andrew, just the circumstances under which she had him -- "I love him to death," she said. And after splitting for a year, she and her boyfriend, Louis Sanchez, are back together.
However, her life is now a daily struggle, not at all what she had envisioned as an honor-roll student at Woodside High School. Life wasn't easy then -- her mother worked two jobs, her biological father was out of the picture -- but she saw a clear way forward to college, law school and a career in criminal justice.
She still has the same plans, but they will take more time and effort to realize. Accepted into Santa Clara University and several state schools, Genchi opted for the less expensive, more practical choice of beginning her studies at a local community college. She reads assignments on her smartphone during lunch, then studies in a state of exhaustion after putting Andrew to bed. The carefree Facebook updates of her high school friends are dispatches from an alien world.
Erendira Parra, who graduated this spring from Menlo-Atherton High School, filmed a short documentary on Genchi this year as a senior project. She came away impressed.
"I really admire that she still goes to school and she manages to takes care of her child," said Parra, whose view of teen parents had been colored by the "train wrecks" she'd witnessed on MTV's hit shows "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom."
Genchi is careful when talking on the panel to distance herself from the MTV phenomenon, which in her view contributes to stereotypes that teen mothers are lazy and unfit. Providing a more accurate picture of teen parenthood, she said, is her way of giving back to the community. She's paid to participate, but not much -- just $10 per presentation.
"Teen Talk is kind of a way of fixing my mistakes," she said.
Though she downplays it on the panels, Flores knows that teen parenthood doesn't always smother one's dreams for the future -- in her case, it brought them back to life.
Flores grew up in San Jose. Her volatile father ditched the family without a word when she 13, leaving her mother to provide for four children. They wound up homeless, living in a car for a couple of months.
She began hanging out with gang members, drinking every day. A month before discovering she was pregnant, she witnessed a friend be stabbed to death.
"In my case," said Flores, 18, "getting pregnant was the thing that changed me."
Instead of crumbling under the weight of parenthood, she embraced it. She graduated from Redwood High School this spring and already has a job as a dental assistant. She begins studying at Cañada College in the fall. One day she hopes to be a psychiatrist.
Sitting on the carpeted steps of the Kennedy school library late last month, she delivered a forceful closing statement to the students arrayed beneath her -- most of them listened, a few boys goofed off. She urged them to beware of peer pressure; to be leaders, not followers; that every choice has consequences, sooner or later.
"There's positive consequences and there's negative consequences to everything. Everything has consequences," Flores said. "And I learned that the hard way. And I would really like you guys to learn that the positive way."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Campaign for Preventing Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies