The towheaded toddler plants one palm on each of her mother's cheeks.
“This is my mama,” the girl says, as if showing off her most prized possession.
For two hours, two-and-a-half-year-old Adalyn and her mom, 16-year-old Kennedy Griest, sit side-by-side making Play-doh sculptures while Kennedy talks candidly – spelling out words she deems unsuitable for small ears – about the shock of learning she was pregnant, about the classmates who bullied and harassed her, and about the everyday trials and triumphs as she balances motherhood with high school.
She is determined to beat the odds and defy the statistics.
BRIGHTON, Mich. - It was 2014, the summer leading up to her freshman year.
Kennedy Griest, then 14, was at a pool party with other popular kids from Scranton Middle School in Brighton. Another girl snapped a photo, posted it to social media and added some commentary.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, look. Kennedy's pregnant,’” said Griest. "People started asking, and I was like, ‘No, I'm not. There's no way.’”
Griest and her then-boyfriend had been dating for over a year. They began having sex when they were both 13. She knew how babies were made and says they were using condoms.
Still, as she remembers it, the risk of pregnancy never crossed her mind.
She didn’t think she looked pregnant in the photo, and she didn’t feel pregnant – at least she didn’t think she did. In hindsight, the symptoms seem clear.
Like during the eighth grade trip to Washington D.C., when she mistook morning sickness for the flu. Or the missed menstrual cycles – nothing new for a young athlete. Or the bouts of crying and changes in her young body, which she and her mother both attributed to puberty.
“It was all normal girl changes so I didn’t even think of (pregnancy),” said Griest, who lives in Green Oak Township. “Then this girl posts this picture, and my mom was like, ‘Is there any way you could be?’ I (said) ‘No. Well, I mean, I guess I could be, but we used protection.’”
Besides, she said, the timing was off. She and her boyfriend had broken up several months prior, and she was seeing someone else. They'd done nothing more than kiss.
Three home pregnancy tests and a trip to the walk-in clinic proved what she couldn't have imagined just hours earlier.
In October 2014, she gave birth to a 6-pound, 9-ounce baby girl who wasted no time providing her 14-year-old mother with a welcome-to-parenthood gift.
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“They set her on my chest and of course I start crying right away,” Griest said. “Then she pooped on me. She pooped right on my heart.”
Play-doh in hand, she turns to her daughter.
“You pooped on my heart! Yeah, you did!”
Progress on teen pregnancy in Michigan
American teenagers are more than twice as likely to have a baby as those in Canada, four times more likely than teens in Germany or Norway and almost 10 times more likely than teens in Switzerland, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Green Oak Township resident Kennedy Griest, 14, prepares to take her daughter, Adalyn, home in October 2014. (Photo: Submitted)
But the organization also cites progress: In Michigan, the number of babies born to teen mothers has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, thanks to changes in public policy, access to birth control, sex education and funding for programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy.
In 2014, Michigan teen mothers gave birth to 7,037 babies – including 69 to mothers between the ages of 10 and 14. Adalyn was one of them.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data shows the numbers reflect an overall drop of nearly 60% from 1994, when 17,448 babies were born to teen mothers, including 397 in the 10-to-14 age range.
Disparities persist, however. A much higher percentage of African-American and Hispanic teens give birth compared to white teens, and teen pregnancy is more pervasive in low-income communities. Research shows most teen moms do not graduate from high school and live in poverty.
Griest's was not the typical teen pregnancy, nor is she the typical teen mother.
Today, she is an honors student at Mercy High School, an all-girls, Catholic college preparatory school in Farmington HIlls.
“I want to go to college," she said. "I want to get a degree. I want to go work……provide for my daughter and be the best mom I can possibly be.”
Still, the past two-and-a-half years haven't been what anyone would call easy.
Griest said she and her boyfriend weren’t the only eighth-graders at her school having sex.
Kennedy Griest, now 16, gave birth to daughter Adalyn when she was 14. (Photo: Submitted)
“As soon as parents started asking, once it came out that I was pregnant, everyone was saying, ‘No, she's just the class whore,’” she said. “But no. Everybody was doing it, everyone I was around. It wasn't like you would walk down a school hallway and talk about it, but it wasn't like you were ashamed for doing it. Everyone just was, and everybody knew that.”
Wendy Andrews was shocked to learn her daughter was pregnant. She never saw Kennedy and her then-boyfriend get “all touchy feely,” and never suspected the youngest in her brood of five was having sex.
“The way they behaved, I didn’t even see it as a possibility,” said Andrews, who shares her home with her daughter and granddaughter. “We’re as close as a mother and daughter can get, but I wasn’t asking the right questions. I didn’t think it was time to ask those questions.”
Adalyn's father and his family declined to be interviewed for this story, citing privacy concerns.
When Andrews saw the positive home pregnancy test, the “world started to spin,” she said.
Then came the grief over her daughter’s lost youth, umbrage toward those who spewed hurtful words or urged Kennedy to get an abortion, gratitude for those who were supportive — and worry, about her own future.
At the time, Kennedy was “very immature and into herself,” she said.
“I thought ‘How in the world is she going to be able to take care of a baby? I’m a 50-year-old single mom, and I’m going to be raising baby number six. There’s no way this selfish kid is going to get up in the night to take care of a child.’”
“I couldn’t sleep,’” she added. “I didn’t want to leave my house or see people, because people would whisper and talk about us. It was definitely the most difficult time of my life."
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Kennedy Griest, left, and her mother, Wendy Andrews, each plant a kiss on 2-and-a-half-year-old Adalyn at the famiy's Green Oak Township home. (Photo: Laura Colvin/Livingston Daily)
Griest weighed the possibility of giving her child up for adoption. She encountered at least a few people who encouraged abortion. But she never considered terminating the pregnancy.
“I was scared out of my mind, but…I knew I had to do what was best for this child,” she said. “My mom raised me to value all life; everyone is worth something. Everyone has value. To me, an abortion is killing. It's killing a human.”
Hammered by condemnation, name-calling and mostly-anonymous messages, Griest didn't go back to Brighton High School with her peers when school started that fall. Instead, she began taking classes online.
In October, she decided it was time to stop hiding. Her brother was on the homecoming court. If he was crowned king – and he was – she wanted to be there to see it.
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Kennedy Griest checks out daughter Adalyn's schoolwork at Tot Spot Preschool & Child Care in Brighton. (Photo: Submitted)
In the school parking lot with an older sister and two friends, she sat in the car feeling nervous and sick to her stomach.
"I had this white shirt on, and I had it tied over my stomach just to show, just to be very obvious about (the pregnancy) because I didn't want people to be like, 'Oh my God, is she?' If I was going to come out, I thought I might as well be obvious about it.'"
As they entered the stadium, she made eye contact with a boy she knew from middle school, then kept her eyes on the ground as she walked toward the 50-yard line. She realized too late that she had to walk past her peers.
"I made eye contact with another kid," she said. "I saw him turn around and then almost every head in that students' section looked at me. It felt like the everyone went silent.
"Then, all of sudden, I hear someone yell, 'w-h-o-r-e!" she said, spelling out the word to spare Addie's young ears.
The students, she said, continued to shout insults. Someone changed the words to a school chant and others joined in. Former friends and classmates hurled empty cups and wads of foil.
In the bottom row, she remembers, seniors turned and began shouting at the underclassmen.
"They were telling everyone to shut ... up and to stop because they were my brother's best friends. I was like a little sister to a lot of them,'" Griest said.
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16-year-old mom Kennedy Griest of Green Oak Township talks about her daughter, Adalyn during an interview with the Livingston Daily Friday, May 19, 2017. (Photo: Gillis Benedict/Livingston Daily)
“I felt like I was going to vomit right then and there."
Later, she realized it had been a definitive moment. She went off social media and locked her phone in the family safe.
“I’d been getting calls for a while, from blocked numbers, late at night,” Griest said. “One night, I got over 60 messages…each time saying I was a whore and I was going to hell ... all these terrible things.”
Brighton Area Schools Superintendent Greg Gray said the bullying and harassment were never reported to him. The district does everything in its power to keep it from happening, he said.
“Most of it happens outside of school and then gets brought into school,” Gray said. “People need to monitor and report it. We track down every single situation that’s brought to us and try to bring it to a resolution.”
The district does not have a policy on pregnancy, he said. No district does, to his knowledge. But he said Griest’s was not the first.
“We’ve had pregnant kids, every school throughout the state and nation has pregnant kids,” he said.
The district follows the Michigan model for sex education, which includes "HIV/STD prevention and sexuality education (that) supports positive physical and mental health of youth," according to the Michigan Department of Education's website.
“All kids would get that – those are mandated classes unless a parent opts (students) out of it," Gray said.
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Kennedy Griest, 16, prepares for the mother and daughter performance during a recital at Theresa's Academy of Dance, where Adalyn attends dance classes. (Photo: Submitted)
Griest said she doesn’t remember any sex education beyond a few days in fifth grade, when the boys went to one room and the girls went to another.
Conversations are key, experts say
Parents should talk to children about sex and relationships “early and often" – and in age-appropriate terms – starting in preschool, said Shari Boley, executive director of the Pregnancy Help Center in Brighton.
“A lot of times parents get concerned about having the talk, and they delay it a little too long,” she said, adding that parents should also equip themselves with knowledge about current teen trends, social media platforms and the pressures teens are facing – including the pressure to sext, texting sexually suggestive or explicit words or photos.
“Sometimes parents think teaching about the physical part of sexual decision making as the most important part. But it’s the social emotional intellectual parts that drive the decision. It all needs to be integrated.
“If you send a picture of a body part it affects you intellectually,” she added. “It affects you socially. You can’t just act in one area.”
Through ongoing conversations, parents can help teens see the big picture, Boley said.
Currently, the center is working on a seminar for adults about talking to teens about relationships and sex. They expect to begin offering it next year.
The center offers a teen mom support group, as well as parent mentoring and a baby boutique, where mothers can “earn” diapers, clothing and other baby necessities by meeting with a mentor and engaging in parent education programs.
Griest recently won an Outstanding Student Leadership award from the Farmington Hills Optimist Club, awarded each year to one junior at each of the area’s high schools along with a $200 check to be given back to an organization in the community. She decided to give her money to the Brighton Pregnancy Help Clinic.
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Kennedy Griest takes daughter, "Princess Adalyn," trick-or-treating on Halloween. (Photo: Laura Colvin)
Livingston County, she said, doesn’t have many organizations like it.
“I went there for a lot of help,” she said. “I get clothes, I get diapers, furniture just for showing up. I'm giving it back because we don't have a lot of places like that here that are helpful. I think people just ignore teen pregnancy.”
Reeling in the shock of her pregnancy, Griest was eager for her sister Mackenzie – who she calls Mackie – to return two days later from a trip to Africa, where she was studying as part of a program at Grand Valley State University.
"I just needed to talk to her," she said. "I needed to hear her say something, just anything, because she is my biggest role model ever. I love her and look up to her so much.
“When I told her…she gave me a hug. She said, "I love you so much, Boo."
"Boo" is a nickname her family gave her as a child, when she pretended to be Boo from the movie Monsters, Inc.
After that, she had to tell her boyfriend, also 14 at the time.
He wanted to know how long she’d known, and if she’d known when they began dating. She told him she found out two days prior.
“He goes, ‘OK well, it makes sense as to why you've been sick…just know this doesn't change anything. I know we're young, but you're a great person, and I want to be with you, and I want to help you through this.’”
They're still together.
“I understand adoption is good for some people and some situations,” Griest said. “But I had a village of people around me, and I knew the right people will support me and love me.’”
Kennedy Griest, 14, poses for a photo with her sister Mackie -- who provided her with much needed support during her pregnancy. (Photo: Submitted)
Andrews believes her daughter has “matured a lot” over the past several years and she couldn’t be more proud.
“She’s become more patient,” Andrews said. “From the beginning, she was such an attentive mother. It amazed me how wonderful she was and how quickly it happened. She comes home from school and she’s not on her phone, not watching TV, she’s doing things with Addie. She’s a mother first, always. She tells me that, she tells her friends that and she tells her boyfriend that. ‘I’m a mother first, always.’”
She also knows the support her daughter gets – from her, from other family members, new friends and mentors – makes all the difference.
“It took some of the family members longer than others to get on board, but the important thing is that we're all on board now,” she said. “Kennedy and Addie get so much love and support.”
These days, Griest stays up to study until about midnight during the school year. And every morning she gets up at 6 a.m. and drives an hour to Mercy High School, where she maintains a grade point average of 3.56 going into her senior year.
She leads the school’s Pro-Life Club, was recently inducted into the National Honors Society and also serves on the school’s Link Crew Team, where older students who welcome and mentor younger pupils.
“I was a little bit nervous when she first applied for Link Crew, because I know what she’s balancing outside school,” said Trish Brown, a ninth grade counselor who also serves as Link Crew adviser. “I feel this is one of our most committed leadership positions at Mercy, but she has not let us down once…she has her finger on the pulse of what our ninth graders need. She has been stellar.”
When Griest applied to the school after shadowing another student, she was not shunned for having had sex or for child-bearing outside wedlock, Brown said. Instead, she was listened to.
“When she came to us with her story about what happened in her previous district, we couldn’t help but be merciful…and provide the place for her,” Brown said. “I don’t know (that) we were 100 percent confident this would go well. But there was zero judgement whatsoever. We were instantly impressed.”
Brown called Griest resilient, hard-working and inspiring.
“She doesn’t share her story like she wants pity or in a manner to draw attention to herself,” she said. “She speaks like any other mother would – proudly – of her daughter – and proud to be a mother. She shares her story to inspire other students that they, too, can overcome challenges and balance whatever life throws at them.”
Addie attends preschool a few days each week and stays with Andrews the other days while her mom is at school or at work during the summer.
When Griest gets home, she takes Addie along as she earns money babysitting, driving kids to activities or doing other odd jobs. She takes Addie to dance class, where the toddler hams it up, and they spend afternoons, evenings and weekends together.
Other parents sometimes look at her funny, she said, or make comments about her youth, but she does her best to take it all in stride.
“I know it’s not the ideal…teenage life, but I wouldn't change it for a minute,” Griest said. “She is everything to me. I'm thankful for each day that I have and that everything turned out the way it did. I've seen people who have not been supported, and I've seen things go differently for people. I…don’t take it for granted, how lucky I am.”
She wants other teens to know they have “more than one option” when confronted with an unexpected pregnancy.
“It's not something that you should be shunned for,” she said. “It's something everyone needs to be aware of because it happens and, in most situations, girls aren't as lucky to have the perfect setup for all of this, the perfect family, the perfect support system.”
One day, Griest said, she'd ike to start an organization to help other pregnant teens and young mothers.
Andrews shares the sentiment – as well as the well of love for her granddaughter.
“There’s no other love in the world” she said. “I’m enjoying it so much. Addie is the biggest blessing I could ask for. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s the love of my life.”