When Rachel Brignoni was 17, she had what most girls want: good grades, a spot on the cheerleading squad and the homecoming princess title. And then she got pregnant.
She was lost. The people in her small town turned their backs on her. As they looked at her young face and then down at her pregnant belly, scowls crossed their faces. Judging stares followed her everywhere. Society had deemed her a failure, told her that her life was ruined. But, always stubborn, Brignoni knew she could change what others thought was a disappointment into a positive experience.
“I had a son early, but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure,” she said.
It took her 11 years, but Brignoni, who now lives in Winter Park, got her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Central Florida and is a human resources executive for a Fortune 100 company.
“I just didn’t want to be a statistic,” she said.
What she’s accomplished is almost impossible considering the statistics. Only 40 percent of teen mothers graduate high school, less than 2 percent go to college and more than 75 percent are on welfare within five years of their child’s birth, according to March of Dimes. But after conquering the statistics, Brignoni knew she needed to help others.
Book of hope
In 2007, she wrote a book to give pregnant teens hope, provide them with exercises to find self-awareness and to create goals. A year later, she created the Brignoni Foundation for Pregnant Teens so that she could donate her book to those teens who didn’t have the resources to buy one. She spends her spare time traveling to speak to pregnant and at-risk teens about her own journey and success, offering them hope for their own futures.
“Rachel had the ability to look at a hardship and turn it into probably the greatest gift in her life,” said Rachel Allen, of the foundation’s board of directors and Brignoni’s friend of 17 years.
Melting tough hearts
Although she’s been through it all, Brignoni said at first it’s tough to get to the soft side of the girls she talks to. On first impression, it’s hard for them to imagine she could relate to anything they’ve experienced — she’s a little older than them, accomplished, polished, pretty and smart. She gets skeptical looks and their arms are protectively crossed. Halfway through her story those barriers melt away, and the teens feel a connection, she said. At the end, Brignoni gets gracious thank yous, hugs and their children to hold.
“I’ve lived it,” she said.
She’s been given dirty looks at restaurants when she couldn’t quiet her crying son, spent time on welfare and was humiliated when she heard impatient huffs at the grocery store line as she used her food stamps. At one time, she was raising her son Kyle alone, going to school and working five jobs.
“I had been through a war zone by the time I was 21,” she said.
But her triumphs are great for the teens she talks to, who need to see good examples of success in career, family and life, said Lisa Murano, director of education and advocacy for Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, where Brignoni has spoken twice.
Ruth Patrick, president of the BETA Center in Orlando, which helps families and teen moms, agreed.
“It’s not about the bad — they have to recognize what happened to them and realize that their youth offers a lifetime of possibility ahead,” Patrick said.
And that’s what Brignoni focuses on. Now a wife and mother of four, she was inspired to start the Foundation when she was pregnant with her second child, 11 years later. Her experience was drastically different, she said. People were welcoming — they touched her stomach and congratulated her. Strangers looked at her warmly. It was hard for her to think back to her first pregnancy, when she needed the most support and was abandoned.
“I was treated so differently; it was painful looking back,” she said.
Now when she talks to the teens, she hopes that she can make them understand that while it may be a hard life, it’s their choice to be positive, to not let others make them feel like a failure and to create a future worth being proud of.
“She lived that message, and she can demonstrate through her life that you have a choice,” Allen said. “It’s a message for everybody.”
For more information about the Brignoni Foundation, ways to donate, to request success toolkits or ask Rachel Brignoni to visit your organization, visit BrignoniFoundation.org. Her book, “Hope … Joy (and a Few Little Thoughts)” can be purchased on Amazon, or you can request a donated copy by contacting Brignoni on her website.