The girls sit around the table eating a lunch of fried chicken and mashed potatoes at Evans High School. Their chatter jumps from stretch marks to parenting books as they share the anxieties of being young mothers.
Driving can be scary: What if you're in a wreck when the baby is in the car?
Child care can be nerve-racking: You can't leave your baby with just anyone.
At the lunch table, the teen mothers are in a haven, a support group just for them that meets each month. This is where they can vent, share parenting tips and urge one another to graduate.
Trisha McCune, the mother of 8-month-old Kyleeann, gets frustrated by comments of classmates: "They see all of us and they say, 'I want a baby, I want to be pregnant,' and I'm like, 'Wait until you're a little bit older.' "
Their lives aren't easy. A new member asked the girls what the hardest part is.
"You don't get any time for yourself," Trisha said.
The girls talk about the help (or lack thereof) they get from their families and from the fathers of their babies.
Tamara Price, 18, a senior with an 18-month-old son, Jayden, said she receives help only from her family and doesn't see the father's family.
Candice Barr, 18, a senior with a 6-month-old child, Jaydin, receives a lot of help from her mother. She said she doesn't know what she would do without her mom.
Trisha's mother died a week before Trisha discovered she was pregnant. It's still a tough subject for the teen mother, who breaks down as some of the girls talk about the help they get from their mothers.
"Y'all have no idea how hard it is," she said through tears.
The girls fall into a somber silence.
As 18-year-old Sharel Gonsalves, six months pregnant, consoles Trisha, she admits she cried the previous day "because I wanted a chalupa."
The girls dissolve into laughter and talk until the bell rings and they rejoin the rest of the student body in class.
A helping hand
The group, now in its third year, was started by Lauren Swearingen, the graduation coach at Evans High School.
"I had some girls come to me that I was working with on my case load," she said as she prepared for the meeting in a library conference room.
The dropout rate for teen mothers is high: Only 40 percent of girls who have a baby before age 18 graduate from high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Ms. Swearingen said the Evans group has a 90 percent graduation rate. On average, the girls in the group are 15 when they become mothers, delivering a daunting obstacle to finish school.
The group members give one another a lot of support, which increases the odds they'll finish school, Ms. Swearingen said.
Outside of the group, Ms. Swearingen serves as cheerleader when they're ready to give up, telling them, "You can make it a little further."
Ms. Swearingen said she helps the young mothers get diplomas because that will mean a better life for them and their children.
"In the end, it's worth it on a personal level," she said.
One morning, members of the group sit in front of health classes. Trisha, Tamara, and Ashley Johns, 19, an Evans graduate and charter member of the group who has a 3-year-old daughter, Breanna, share their stories and talk about what to expect from life as a teen parent. Tamara thinks their cautionary tales and warnings will be heeded by about half of the students who hear them. The younger students are more capable of applying the lessons, she said.
That's what they hope for, Ashley said, but they're not sure whether it would have made a difference to them.
Ashley was 15 in March of her freshman year when she became pregnant. At first, she attributed her body changes to puberty, an already irregular period, and dining out too frequently.
At the five-month mark of her pregnancy, she told her parents. The next day, she got a rolling backpack and hopped onto the bus to start her sophomore year.
"No one suspected it, everyone was shocked," she said. "No one is ready for that lifetime commitment at 15 or 16 years old."
Despite pregnancy and childbirth, she scheduled appointments after school and had near-perfect attendance.
"I stayed in school. I did not drop out. I knew I needed to do this for me and Breanna," she said.
It's hard to enjoy everyday high school activities when you're a parent. Tamara attended a football game last season but had to leave early when the weather didn't cooperate.
"I can't leave a 1-year-old son out in the rain," she said.
A student asks: "Did your friends help you out?"
"No," Tamara said.
She took a job when she was three months pregnant. Her paycheck went toward stocking up on baby items.
"My son's father didn't buy anything," she said. He was living in Texas at the time.
"He was a phone call," Tamara said. "I had to text him what the sex (of the baby) was."
Tamara had played basketball since she was 8, but now she doesn't have the time.
"After the season, I haven't touched a basketball," she said.
Trisha says she lived differently before she got pregnant.
"I did whatever I wanted to," she said. "Having a baby sets more restrictions and rules than living with your parents."
At Trisha and boyfriend Brad Kowal's apartment in Evans, Trisha spoons peas, then banana plum baby food into Kyleeann's mouth. As she feeds the baby, she steals baby spoonfuls of banana plum herself.
She and Brad moved into the apartment in late December. His mother takes care of Kyleeann when Trisha and Brad, a freshman at Augusta State University, are at school.
"He got his high school diploma, I'm about to get mine; that's the big thing," Trisha said.
It's a goal she also hopes her daughter will attain.
"I just want her to finish school," she said. "Hopefully, she won't be a teen mom."
Trisha wants to attend Augusta Technical College and earn a cosmetology license. She did a makeover as part of her senior project.
Though she doesn't regret having Kyleeann, she does wish she had waited until she was older:
"I'd have my time to be who I want to be and have a life."
Reach Sarah Day Owen at (706) 823-3223 or email@example.com.
THE LONG ODDS
38: Children born to mothers ages 15-17 in Columbia County in 2006
168: Children born to mothers ages 15-17 in Richmond County in 2006
112: Children born to mothers ages 15-17 in Aiken County in 2006
20: Percent of teen mothers who have a second child within three years
28: Percent of Georgia teen moms who have repeat births -- the second-highest rate in the nation
27: Percent of South Carolina teen moms who have repeat births -- the 11th-highest rate in the nation
Sources: Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, Georgia Department of Human Resources' Division of Public Health Information and Policy Web site, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Georgia Department of Education Report Card, South Carolina Department of Education Annual School District Report Card, South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, National Kids Count Program