December 18, 2012 // Local

ECHO program being ‘heard’ in diocese

By Vince LaBarbera

“Being a teen in today’s world isn’t easy. Neither is being a parent. When you put the two together, it usually means a lot less time with friends, a harder time keeping up with school requirements and a lot more responsibility,” states a brochure from Catholic Charities, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. “Most pregnant and parenting teenagers need extra support,” reads a subhead in the brochure.

That “support” is being provided through a Catholic Charities program called ECHO (Education Creates Hope and Opportunity). This school- and home-based program provides guidance and resources to pregnant and parenting teens, enabling them to complete their high-school education and successfully parent their children. Catholic Charities serves a total of 14 Indiana counties; however, the ECHO program currently is only available in Allen and St. Joseph counties.

“The program has been in existence in the Fort Wayne area since May 1998,” said Tosha Gearhart, family services supervisor for Catholic Charities. Along with Natalie Corazzi, ECHO program case manager, the two young ladies are prepared to administer the program in about a dozen schools in Allen County. In addition, ECHO has expanded, offering support for 18- to 24-year-old parents attending college at IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne) or who are enrolled in any Allen County continuing education or job-training program.

“This school year we’ve served 67 clients in four schools in Allen County,” said Gearhart. “All eight students eligible to graduate from high school did graduate,” she emphasized.

Since July 2011, Kwajalein Reed, ECHO program case manager, South Bend, provides services to the South Bend School Corporation, which includes approximately 25 elementary, middle and secondary schools. She also reaches out to IUSB (Indiana University, South Bend), Ivy Tech and other area colleges and continuing education programs, estimating at one time last year she was serving about 30 clients.

Reed said she has had 12 referrals since last July, including three students at IUSB, one from Ivy Tech and one from a vocational program.

“Our focus is on schooling, earning that high-school diploma,” Gearhart continued, “but we also offer someone to talk to as well as helping an individual find all the community resources available to her and her child.” Because of the services new parents receive through participation in ECHO, most are able to stay in school, she related, building the foundation for a better future for themselves and their children. And some go on to pursue higher education.

Awareness of the program is through visits and distribution of ECHO brochures to hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices and schools, working with the school nurse and guidance counselors. However, Gearhart said, some schools will not ask or admit that a student is pregnant.

ECHO provides each client with a case manager who meets with her in school or home — sometimes with the father of the child actively participating as well — to work toward a GED, offering encouragement, emotional support, guidance and assistance in setting realistic goals.

“We want them to feel comfortable about their situation,” Corazzi said. “We help them complete a job résumé or explore higher education,” she added. “We also provide information about adoption, which works out well since Tosha works with adoptions. Sometimes we also accompany a client on their prenatal and well-baby visits,” said Corazzi, who often spends several hours in a doctor’s office with a student.

The program is free; strictly voluntary and parental consent is required for students under 18 years of age. This year, in fact, ECHO services were provided to two 13-year-olds in Fort Wayne.

Originally from Huntington, Gearhart is observing one year with Catholic Charities this December. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, and received her master’s degree in social work from IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis).

Corazzi is a native of Fort Wayne and also has worked at Catholic Charities for a year after completing a one-year internship. She received a bachelor’s degree in human services from IPFW.

Reed is from the Chicago area and has been employed at Catholic Charities in South Bend since July 2011. She completed requirements for a bachelor’s degree in general studies at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, and earned a master’s degree in psychology from Capella University, Minn.

“Our jobs make us feel good and we enjoy the work we do,” Gearhart, Corazzi and Reed all emphasized. For next year plans already are underway to add a full-time employee, one part-time worker and an intern to the Fort Wayne ECHO staff. In South Bend, an intern from Saint Mary’s College currently works with Reed in the ECHO program.


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