JOINT-BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas – Fear, hopelessness, resignation are not uncommon emotions for many teenagers who learn they’re pregnant. Such negative feelings could destroy a kid’s life.
Reserve Citizen Airman Maj. Katrina Gagner, 97th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot, refuses to let that happen.
Thanks to a series of events, Gagner learned about an organization committed to helping single, pregnant girls learn the host of life skills that will help them overcome barriers and negative feelings.
Young Life, an international organization with a host of missions, activated “YoungLives” 20 years ago with a vision to “reach teen moms by entering their world, modeling the unconditional love of Christ, and encouraging them to become the women and mothers God created them to be,” Gagner said.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, every career decision led her one step closer to Sheppard Air Force Base, in Wichita Falls, Texas, and one step closer to changing YoungLives.
Commissioned in 2008 through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Gagner is originally a C-17 pilot. After 6 years on active duty, she and her husband, Maj. Joe Gagner (also a 97th FTS pilot), discussed career options that would enable them to continue to serve without extensive separation from each other and their children.
Joe stayed on active duty, but Katrina accepted an opportunity with the Reserve. That decision gave the Gagners the flexibility and balance they needed to raise their family.
While pregnant with her second child, Katrina became aware of YoungLives when she learned that her teenage babysitter was pregnant, and they had the same due date.
“I don’t believe this was coincidental,” she said, explaining “God places us where he needs us.”
Determined to help her sitter through the challenges that lay ahead, Katrina reached out to YoungLives. As a program mentor, she provides stable support for program participants, ensuring they have someone in their lives that they can rely on.
“We’re investing in lives,” Gagner explained. “Many program participants turn their life around and go on to succeed, and some may not. But the door is open for those who don’t. This isn’t a one time, one meeting program. We’re interested in making a lifelong spiritual difference.”
As critical as spiritual and emotional strength is, program participants need basic, practical support, as well, so mentors help young moms learn such life basics as meal preparation and goal setting, and provide them with social outlets and help with child care when necessary.
Although he’s not a YoungLives mentor, Joe has also been very supportive, and has gone out to help some of the young moms with crises like car problems.
“We spend three or four hours a week with our participants, in addition to a week long summer camp for teen moms and their babies,” Katrina said. They become part of our families, and even after they graduate from the program, they remain a part of our lives.”
There’s a growing need for mentors in the local area, according to Katrina.
“This year, we saw about 20 new girls join the program - that’s a significant increase over previous years,” she said. “It’s a great thing that they come to us, to the program, though. We all just want to give these kids a shot at a better life, and show them what unconditional, non-judgmental love looks like.”
Emotional and spiritual satisfaction are part of the rewards for mentors and program participants, but YoungLives mentors don’t have metrics against which they can measure success. Still, success is evident to those, like Gagner, who look for it.
“I see a difference in how they raise their own children, with a sense of hope for a different future for themselves and their kids. Success is very hard to measure for this program, as much of it is so intangible. We’re mentoring kids that most often come from long cycles of poverty and cycles of teenage motherhood, and unstable homes. Tangible changes aren’t visible overnight, or even before they graduate the program,” she said. But we help them to envision a new future for themselves and their children’s lives beyond their current situation.”
For Young Life as a whole (the parent organization of YoungLives), many mentors return after their initial experience, and some become leaders through college and beyond.
“They’re succeeding in making a generational investment in others, which is what this program is all about, changing legacies,” Katrina said.
College kids also volunteer to help with the program, and once they’ve volunteered, many return annually during summer camp. That’s especially motivational for the young moms who are able to see so many options for themselves in the examples set by the various people who support the program.
The opportunity to support this and other programs is easier for Katrina as an Air Force Reservist than it might be if she were still on active duty.
“As Reservists, especially traditional Reservists, we have more flexibility with scheduling,” Katrina said. “We’d probably have fewer opportunities if we were active duty, and that would be a shame. Many new teen moms would have fewer mentor options. I would be sad if I were unable to participate, as well.”
For Gagner, who doesn’t believe in coincidence, her 2008 commission was just the beginning of a journey that has so far led her to YoungLives, and will continue to lead her to other opportunities to serve people in need.