When she was a teen mom, Vanessa Padilla took a while to warm up to people. She had felt judged by her school peers when she became pregnant at 14, and in turn she became judgmental toward others. Her early experiences with Shine Together (then known as Teen Success) changed all that. She met other moms who were in similar situations, and she made an instant connection with Sarah Villa, an Advocate who had been a young mom and had similar interests.

Vanessa found herself opening up during group meetings with Sarah and other moms, and started to feel more open-minded—about the people around her, and about everything she needed to learn about being a successful mom to her son. It was the start of a path of resiliency and the beginning of a strong connection between Vanessa and Sarah that persists 12 years later. As the longest member of the Shine staff, Sarah is now the Central Valley Regional Director in Fresno, and Vanessa is an Advocate herself in the same office.

Relatability Matters

Sarah was the supportive force Vanessa critically needed when she was 15, raising a baby and taking high school classes while having limited support at home. Sarah knew the struggles young mothers like Vanessa were going through. She had had two children by the time she was 18, an experience that led to a career of supporting and mentoring young moms, first with Planned Parenthood and youth organization Fresno Barrios Unidos, and eventually Shine.

“I had the advantage of the lived experience, and being a young mom myself, there were teachable moments that I would share with them from my personal journey when there were absolutely no programs for myself,” Sarah says. “So that’s why I think I’ve poured my heart and soul into this program.”

Sarah still has the San Francisco 49ers ornament Vanessa made during those initial meetups in the Teen Success program. Making the ornaments is a core memory for Vanessa, the kind of memories she wants to create for the girls she’s helping, in her role as a Shine Advocate. “She did things to make it fun,” Vanessa says about Sarah. “We were learning things but it didn’t seem like a class.” Those learnings included activities around eating healthy and being patient with young children—lessons that were completely new to Vanessa at the time, as she was just a child herself.

“One of the most important things that we did in the group was to keep it down to earth, and make it fun,” Sarah says. “There were lots of laughs, lots of tears, but they knew they had a safe place to be for a couple of hours.”

Vanessa shares another core memory involving Sarah: “I used to get upset when my son was starting to walk and he would go get pans out of the cupboards. She would tell us to turn those moments into activities like musical time.” In fact, Sarah was full of ideas for quality time that didn’t cost money. She knew the moms she was working with were short on cash and needed practical, inexpensive tips.

“She was so patient and she would be like, well, you have to remember he’s a baby. Being kids, too, we don’t think about that,” Vanessa says. “We’re growing ourselves.”

Back then, Vanessa’s support system was limited as her mom had a baby close in age to Vanessa’s son, and her father was initially upset about Vanessa’s pregnancy and skeptical about her plans to graduate high school and pursue her college degree. Vanessa was persistent, however, buoyed by Sarah’s supportive words to show everyone she was capable of achieving her education goals. And she did: Vanessa received her bachelor’s degree in criminology-corrections from Fresno State and was recently accepted to San Jose State University to earn a master’s in social work.

“I would tell my high school and college self, ‘You did it. You proved everybody wrong,’” Vanessa says.

Supporting Today’s Young Moms

Not only has Vanessa persevered during her own growth journey while raising a 12-year-old, respectable boy, Shine has become stronger and expanded, too, and both Sarah and Vanessa are playing pivotal roles in helping and supporting today’s young moms in the Fresno area.

When meeting young moms now, Vanessa thinks back to the relatability that connected her with Sarah and shares her story as soon as she feels the time is right. “If I feel they’re being timid about saying they got pregnant and feel ashamed of themselves, that when I say, ‘It’s OK. I’m a teen mom, too.’ It is not the end of the world. I always mention Sarah and say she was my Advocate and now the regional director. And this program has been around for years and is doing great things, and it’s expanding. When I was in Teen Success, we didn’t have free diapers. We didn’t have a center, we didn’t even have a space for all of us.”

Back then, the Fresno program was limited to a weekly support group, and ended for Vanessa when she finished high school. She wishes she had the services Shine has now that support young moms as they pursue their postsecondary education.

Things have changed dramatically since these two women first met yet their connection still holds strong. “I went off to college and she was still there,” Vanessa says. “We picked up where we left off. You can’t do that with a lot of people.

“I didn’t see her as an Advocate, honestly,” Vanessa adds. “I saw her more like—and I’ll say this today too—she’s my Shine mom.
She is like my mom that raised me. I love my mom, but she wasn’t able to teach me a lot of the things that Sarah taught me that I am able to teach my son now. And I love her for that.”

Early on in their relationship, Sarah took note of Vanessa’s persistence and resiliency. Vanessa was determined to attend a four-year college and managed to do so. Now that Sarah works alongside Vanessa, she is “super proud” of all that Vanessa has accomplished, the ideas she brings to Shine, and how she is a role model to young mothers. “Thank you, Vanessa, for allowing me to recruit you,” Sarah says.

“I’m super, super proud of Vanessa,” Sarah adds. “I’m super excited that Vanessa has joined us as we have a lot to learn from her.”