De'Janae Simpson flits around the hundreds of folks gathered at Eagle Church in Whitestown with nervous energy. It's not the first time this 17-year-old has addressed so many people, but she wants to appear polished, mature, successful.
She's also worried that her 4-1/2-month-old daughter, Za'Nyla, might spit up on her outfit.
"She always gets me at the worst times," De'Janae said last month, after greeting me with a hug and a smile.
That smile. It’s always there. But if you look beyond it, just around the edges, you’ll see all the pain and suffering De'Janae has experienced in her short life. You’ll see the fear and uncertainty. But there’s also determination and strength. There’s a blossoming young woman who appears capable of taking on whatever comes her way.
I intently watch the faces in the room as De'Janae speaks from the auditorium's stage at Eagle Church. It was important for me to see how open these white, mostly well-to-do, church-going folks would be to a vulnerable African-American teen as she bared her soul and shared her secrets. The crowd seemed enthralled by De'Janae, listening intently, nodding encouragingly, smiling.
When she was finished speaking, they gave her a standing ovation.
See, De’Janae has a spirit unlike most 17-year-olds I’ve met. She can work a room like a poised politician. She’s often tapped to educate business and elected officials, including Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, about charter schools and her nonprofit lifelines, Central Indiana Youth For Christ and Parent Life.
She is an athlete. She is an ambassador for her high school. She is a motivational speaker. She is an accomplished student. She is deeply religious.
And she is a teen mother.
I want to take you on a journey. De’Janae’s journey. I have spent the last year following De’Janae and chronicling her life as she coped with the realities of pregnancy, from her changing body to raging hormones to her inability to follow doctors’ orders to take vitamins and make nutritious meal choices.
I've been with De'Janae through doctor's appointments, high school registration, home-nurse visits, college visits, Parent Life meetings, hospital emergencies and time at home with family.
De'Janae is a senior at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. She attended Ben Davis High School her junior year, but transferred to Indy Met because she liked the intimate atmosphere and felt the smaller school would be more conducive to her life as a mother.
This school year, she spoke to Hogsett about the importance of the renewal of charter schools, and to a group of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana employees and executives about the quality of her education. Her principal selected her, as an outstanding senior, to make the presentation.
I’ve watched as De'Janae has learned to balance the demands of new motherhood while going to school, playing volleyball and struggling with the deep challenges of her home life.
De’Janae’s mother is HIV positive. Her father is a drug addict and absent from her life. Her family has been homeless. Many nights they struggle to have enough food on the table.
De’Janae has been forced to raise herself. Her complicated home life and desire to feel loved has led to poor decisions — none bigger than starting a sexual relationship with a man she met on social media when she was 14.
He was 23.
Two years later, she became pregnant with his child.
But this isn’t just a story about teen pregnancy or a cautionary tale about older men preying on young teens. This is a story about a young woman who is desperate to beat the odds. She certainly faces an uphill battle; statistics show that teen mothers routinely fail to earn a high school diploma and often end up living in poverty.
I’ve talked at length with De’Janae about those statistics and why she thinks she can build a better life for herself despite all the obstacles — collisions she's already had and those yet to be discovered.
Yes, there's uncertainly. But she’s found redemption in her self and in her baby girl, Za’Nyla. And I refuse to count them out.
'An amazing gift from God'
Za'Nyla Michelle-Marie Simpson was born at 7:08 a.m. June 23. She weighed 5 pounds, 12 ounces and was 18 inches tall. De'Janae had to push seven times to deliver her.
But the pregnancy wasn't easy.
At eight weeks, De'Janae feared she could miscarry because an ultrasound showed blood around the gestational sac. She was put on bed rest. It wouldn't be the last time.
At 29 weeks, prom week, De'Janae started contracting. She tried to ignore the pain because her mother told her she didn't have enough gas in her car to take her to the hospital. When she was admitted to the hospital the next day, she had already dilated 3 centimeters.
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De'Janae was devastated. She had a black prom dress and a hair appointment and dreams of a magical evening. She was dating her long-time friend, Richard Ceaser, who had returned from the military and was supporting her through the pregnancy. The baby's father had told her he wanted nothing to do with raising the infant or pursuing a serious relationship with her. So when Ceaser, then 20, committed to helping her, she jumped at the chance to go to prom with her real-life Prince Charming.
The fairy tale subsided as reality took hold. She felt that the baby wasn't kicking as much. She had gained only eight pounds throughout her pregnancy. She was transferred from Eskenazi Hospital to IU-Health Hospital because Eskenazi's staff was not equipped to treat pre-term infants. This was all getting a bit too real. Sitting in her hospital bed, De'Janae was scared to look at the machine monitoring her baby's heartbeat.
"It's terrifying — it's too early," De'Janae said to those of us in the room. "I'm only 29 weeks and two days." She was holding back tears. She quickly readjusted her face and demeanor. As is often the case with De'Janae, she had to be strong while those around her freaked out.
She sat looking out the window until Jacqui Huber, the manager of labor and delivery, stopped in to tell De'Janae that her pregnancy was now considered high risk and that medical intervention was needed to stop pre-term labor.
De'Janae was given magnesium and spent a week in the hospital. Upon release, doctors ordered bed rest for at least five weeks. De'Janae hustled to Ben Davis to meet with her teachers and counselors to explain why she wouldn't be back for the last three weeks of school. They looked at her grades and determined she was in fine shape, and that she could complete her assignments and take the end-of-year exams from home.
"I want to finish strong," she told school counselor Mike Horning. "I have to finish strong. I'll do whatever I need to do."
De'Janae stayed in her bed in her darkened room in her family's darkened apartment, studying and completing assignments. She finished the year with a 3.5 grade point average.
It wasn't how she envisioned her junior year ending. But none of this was what she envisioned.
"You plan and you plan and then she decides everything," De'Janae said of Za'Nyla. "But she's an amazing gift from God."
A child forced into adulthood
De'Janae entered high school with a chip on her shoulder and a desire to escape a broken home. She found solace in volleyball. And she sought companionship on social media.
Like most teenagers, De'Janae’s life plays out on social media. When she’s depressed, she tells her followers about it with words and emojis. When she doesn’t know where to buy Pedialyte for her daughter, she asks her Facebook friends for suggestions. She’s open, honest and a free spirit on social media, maybe a bit too much. She puts it out there for everybody to see. And it's how she met the father of her child.
She began exchanging messages with a guy on Snapchat who had followed her. Within the week, she had invited him to her house. De'Janae had little parental supervision and easily kept her new friend a secret. They talked on the phone every day. She started having sex with him even though he was 23.
His name is Desmond Blow. He is now 26. He lives at home with his mother. He has two other children, sons who are ages 2 and 4. He is now a daily part of De'Janae and Za'Nyla's life. He often spends the night. He drops De'Janae off at school and Za'Nyla off at daycare. De'Janae insists they are only co-parenting. Richard Ceaser, De'Janae's rock during her pregnancy, her Prince Charming, doesn't come around anymore. He wants to keep the peace.
Blow was not willing to talk to me for this column.
De'Janae said Blow met their daughter when she was 1 month old. She felt strongly that because he was finally willing, he should step up as her father. She concedes that she made this decision based on her own baggage.
"I know what it's like — I grew up with a drug-addicted dad so he wasn't as involved in my life and involved with my development stages," De'Janae said. "I want him to see everything that I went through with her alone so he can know how bad the situation was when he left."
De'Janae is still hurt that Blow abandoned her during her pregnancy. She wants to teach him a lesson. She won't allow him to be around the baby unless she's present. What's frustrating — and refreshing — about De'Janae is that for as mature as she is, she's still a teen. And she reacts the way teenagers do.
She says she doesn't want to be with Blow, but she also acknowledges there is a part of her that thought having Za'Nyla would give them a reason to build a family. She will not be a secret anymore; she forced Blow to tell his mother that they had a baby together.
De'Janae says she refuses to list Za'Nyla in the regret column, but she does regret the decisions she made that led to her pregnancy. As a young adult, she sees all that was wrong with a grown man pursuing a young teen.
"Because I was so young I didn't realize my worth," De'Janae said. "If I knew my worth back then when I was 14, he definitely wouldn't have been in my world. I wouldn't have messaged him back. If I had the parental guidance that I needed back then, it would have never happened.
"But we aren't together now; our relationship is based on Za'Nyla and our parenting," De'Janae said. "He's actively in her life now. We've established that when we see each other, it's about her and only her."
The day Za'Nayla was born, I accompanied De'Janae to the nursery to see her little nugget. Za'Nayla looked so tiny, swaddled in a white blanket with pick and blue stripes. De'Janae held her and talked to her. Just hours after giving birth herself, she warned her daughter not to make the same mistakes she did.
"If you want to bring another life in, don't do it at 18 or teen anything," she told a sleeping Za'Nyla. "Just wait. Find your true love and don't kiss him until you're married."
"I began to think: how am I going to finish high school with a baby? How am I going to raise a baby when I’m still a baby myself? That exact same day I went home and told my mom. She had recently found out she had HIV. She said this gave her a different outlook on life than expected. She said: 'Because of my sickness I don’t know when it will get worse or how long I have, but I’m happy to know I have my first grand baby and I’ll be by your side through it all.' That she definitely was."
De'Janae enjoys sharing her story with those who will listen. When you've been to the depths of despair, it's fulfilling to let others know that there's a way out. Last month at Eagle Church, she spoke about how Youth for Christ and Parent Life carried her through the darkest times, times when she didn't think she could make it.
In 2015, Da'Janae broke her foot during the first week of volleyball practice. She fell into a deep depression. Her mother was involved in an abusive relationship but she continued to allow her boyfriend to live with her family. De'Janae and her two older siblings were tasked with fighting him to protect their mother during his more violent rages.
The live-in-boyfriend later stole everything from De'Janae's mother, including rent money and cash she had saved for Christmas. He disappeared and the family was evicted from their apartment.
They were homeless for nine months.
De'Janae's mother kept her oldest daughter, who has a developmental disability, and moved in and out of shelters. De'Janae's brother lived with one set of cousins; De'Janae lived with another set.
De'Janae was angry and refused to stand by her mother, who was still seeing the abusive boyfriend. "She put us in that situation," DeJanae said of her mother. "She was blinded by the fact that she loved this man so much and he took everything from us."
Her mother found out she had contracted HIV from the man but she kept the news from De'Janae. Once they found stable housing, she shared her secret with her youngest daughter. Soon after, De'Janae took a pregnancy test administered by the school nurse -- it was positive.
"We had a lot on our hearts," De'Janae said.
At one point, when the prenatal vitamins were making De'Janae ill, a visiting nurse suggested she try another brand. De'Janae told her mother, who said she didn't have money to buy more vitamins.
Her mother's support during her pregnancy sometimes waned, though De'Janae struggles to admit that. De'Janae turned to Parent Life — Indianapolis, which was launched in 2008 to encourage and equip pregnant and parenting teens.
The group holds support group meetings, one on one mentoring, educational workshops and a baby boutique where expectant mothers earn points by getting good grades, attending church, working and attending group meetings to shop. De'Janae was able to get most of what she needed for her newborn from the boutique.
Niccole Wilkes, director of City-West Parent Life, immediately took to De'Janae. She brought her children to De'Janae's house to help set up Za'Nyla's crib. She also accompanied her on visits to local colleges.
De'Janae hopes to enroll in the University of Indianapolis or the University of Evansville this fall. Her school counselors are trying to help secure a scholarship to attend Evansville. It would ease much of the financial pressure. And the distance could be good for her, though De'Janae said she wouldn't mind if her family moved to Evansville, too.
"De'Janae is amazing," Wilkes told me. "She has been a leader to the other girls. She's as smart as a whip. She's kind, with a good heart. The girl is unstoppable."
As she looked out at the hundreds of guests at Eagle Church, De'Janae's voice grew stronger. She gained her confidence. She had a story worth telling.
"I want to make sure Za’Nyla has the best support system in life, in school and even in relationships. I want to make sure she needs for nothing. And I want to make sure she sees me graduate not only high school, but college and say ‘I want to be that.’ I want her to know she is loved by every single person around her and if she ever faces an obstacle in life that she can always find a loophole to fix it. I want her to know she has a God who will make it happen for her and will bless her. I look forward to seeing your first steps, your first words, the first time you pull yourself up, even the first temper tantrum. I look forward to your terrible twos and helping you try on prom dresses. And maybe I can wear an "I'm her mom” shirt with your picture on it for your graduation. I want all of it."
Over this year, I've grown to love De'Janae and her daughter Za'Nyla. I want the best for them. I pray for them daily. I want the cycle of abuse and poverty to be broken. Za'Nyla, such a happy, squishy, smiley and cuddly baby, deserves a fresh chance. She shouldn't have to endure the pain and suffering her mother has.
I worry that De'Janae won't make it to college, not because she isn't capable, but because she'll get sucked back into an unfair reality. Maybe she'll have to help care for her mother as the disease progresses. Maybe it will become too difficult to find reliable care for Za'Nyla while she goes to school. Maybe finances will hold her back.
A million things could go wrong.
But a million things also could go right. She is driven to do better, to build a better life. And because I believe in De'Janae Simpson I'm going to hope for the best.
"I want her to see the challenges I've overcome and look at life from a different perspective," De'Janae said of her daughter. "I've struggled to get where I'm at. I want more for her."
Suzette Hackney is a columnist at the IndyStar where this piece first appeared. Follow her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.