Editor's note: This story is part of My Life, My Town, a special project exploring the hopes and challenges of teens in rural Missouri. The project is a product of the Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and Reynolds Journalism Institute. Some of the teens were found with the help of Missouri 4-H.
HARRISBURG — A refrigerator door opens, and plastic bottles clunk to the floor.
One by one, 18-month-old Grayson LeBlanc picks up the bottles of ketchup, soy sauce and salad dressing and carries them to the kitchen table.
At the table, his mother, Shirley, patiently takes the bottles and arranges them in front of her, beaming at her son's comical behavior.
“It’s amazing to have this relationship where he loves me unconditionally,” she said.
Shirley LeBlanc is a young single mother with newfound faith in God and her ability to take care of a toddler.
When she discovered she was pregnant at 17, she was running with a rough crowd and making poor decisions. By the time Grayson was born, she had dumped the bad relationships and was on track to get a college degree.
Now 19, LeBlanc says her son saved her life.
“God put me in the situation where I found out I was pregnant because that’s what I needed to turn around,” LeBlanc said. “I needed something that big and impactful to really change my life.”
News that upended her life
When LeBlanc became pregnant over Christmas break during her senior year at Harrisburg High School, she was distraught. She was in no position to take care of a child, and her dreams seemed to evaporate.
The pregnancy intersected a rocky period in her life. A two-year relationship with her boyfriend was already ending, and he was not happy to hear the news.
“That didn’t really help me because I was frantic,” she said. “It shouldn’t have been surprising because I wasn’t making the best choices, but it was still surprising.”
Ultimately, she severed ties with her boyfriend and all of her other friends. She already had enough credits to graduate, so she didn’t have to return and face them.
As soon as Grayson was born, LeBlanc dedicated herself to her child.
“My plans all went to, how am I going to take care of this baby?” she said. “Everything went on pause.”
As Grayson grew, she shifted from the craziness of tending a newborn to pulling her new life together.
"She has direction and purpose now. She knows what she wants to do with her life," said Kimberly Burgette, LeBlanc's mother.
Her mother has been a big help, LeBlanc says, consistently comforting and supporting her.
“The first thing she reassured me was that my life’s not over. It’s just changed.”
Exploring all the options
LeBlanc seriously considered adoption. An aunt and uncle living in Arizona already had five kids but wanted more.
She spent a few weeks with them in Arizona discussing adoption. She also visited My Life Pregnancy Center in Columbia and met with an adoption consultant.
“I was really debating and planning and trying to do the best thing," she said. “Me and my family just prayed and prayed and prayed about it.”
In the end, LeBlanc decided to keep the baby, but the experience helped solidify her faith. She become a stronger person. She was ready to care for a child.
“I felt God tell me I was supposed to keep him and I did. That’s definitely been a big confirmation in my faith,” she said.
A baby, a job and a degree
As a single mother juggling work and school, LeBlanc’s days are full.
She wakes up before 6 a.m. to get ready for the day. She has to leave her house in Harrisburg with enough time to drop Grayson off at day care and make the 40-minute trip to Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly.
On lighter days, she drives to Fayette after class where she works part-time as a secretary at the First Baptist Church.
Around 5 p.m., she picks up her son and returns home for supper, a bath and time together. Once he is in bed, around 8, LeBlanc heads to her room to tackle homework for the rest of the night.
“You learn to navigate your time so you’ll know when you have free spots,” she said.
“When they’re younger, you have so many things you have to do when they’re sleeping, it’s hard to make time for yourself. But I think you learn to work around that.”
Sometimes, Grayson gets upset when he can't have his mother's undivided attention.
“More so in this relationship than any other one, you notice how much what you do affects them,” she said.
Still, LeBlanc is grateful for the unconditional love.
“The other day he saw me blow out a candle, and it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen,” she said with a laugh. “They think the world of you.”
Finding God instead of darkness
During high school, LeBlanc thought about counseling as a career.
She enrolled in online classes through Liberty University for Christian Counseling when she could fit them in between diaper changes and other chores.
Then in May, almost a year after Grayson was born, she found the job at First Baptist Church in Fayette. With a new job and Grayson growing out of the baby stage, online classes were no longer the best option.
Last fall she discovered Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly and enrolled for the spring semester to continue pursuing a counseling degree.
Although she is uncertain where the future will take her, she can see herself leading Bible studies, teaching women within a church or working with pregnant teens. She wants to provide a Christian foundation to other frightened young mothers.
When LeBlanc first learned she was pregnant, she said she turned to God because she couldn’t handle it on her own.
Kathleen Gillman, a member of her church, has been a mentor to LeBlanc, playing an important role in shaping her relationship with God.
“She realized she needed to grow up pretty young and had to learn from her mistakes and face the consequences,” Gillman said. “I have been trying to help her recognize truth over lies and encourage wise choices.”
The future doesn't seem like such a scary place anymore. LeBlanc is currently in a relationship with someone who also has a child, so they have common ground.
"She's happy," Burgette said.
She is focused on Grayson and now knows that she has the resilience to manage her own life.
"It's so natural, but before it happens you think it's so unnatural."
“You don’t think you can take care of someone or sustain another life, but you can,” LeBlanc said. “It’s amazing because you find out how strong you are.”
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Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.