It didn’t take long for 17-year-old Dawson Matchullis to realize being a teen parent wasn’t going to be easy, even if it was just for marks. The first night, the infant woke up 19 times. It cried, so he woke up, fed the baby and went back to bed. It cried again, he woke up, burped the baby and went back to bed. It cried again, and again, and again until finally Matchullis fell asleep and the baby doll dropped into his lap.

Olds High School’s Career and Life Management class requires its Grade 11 students to take care of a microchipped baby as part of a teenage pregnancy prevention program. Teacher Sherry Leppa and two students – Brittney Broekman and Dawson Matchullis – show us what it’s like. Video produced by Deanna Tucker and Thomas Bogda

Dawson Matchullis is a Grade 12 student who participated in the program last year for a CALM class requirement. Although he had a frustrating first night, he believe the program helped him understand how much it takes to be a single parent. Photo by Deanna TuckerMatchullis, one of many students at Olds High School who participated in the Baby Program, says he lost two marks for rough handling when the baby fell into his lap. “I had some pretty tough nights,” he says.

Teacher Sherry Leppa started the program 15 years ago as part of the required Grade 11 Career and Life Management (CALM) class. After going to a leadership conference, she came across a trade show booth featuring electronic babies. The microchipped doll is used to give the participant a hands-on experience in taking care of a newborn, which Leppa knew would work wonderfully with her program. “Most educators would agree that anytime you have a hands-on approach to any learning experience that we can provide for students, that is key,” says Leppa.

How it works

Sherry Leppa shows Grade 11 student Brittney Broekman how to properly handle her doll, Boyd, as well as what will be tracked as she cares for the doll. For every time the student soothes the baby simulator, they keep a time-specific diary of what they did. Photo by Deanna Tucker

Each student has a microchipped wristband that connects with a doll for which the student is responsible for a two- or three-day period. Much different from a bag of sugar or flour many students may have had to carry as part of their high school pregnancy prevention programs, this virtual baby follows a typical newborn schedule.Students are required to feed, burp, change and soothe the baby within a certain time frame or the computer program will stop the baby’s crying and mark the infant as being unattended.

Grade 11 student Brittney Broekman recalls feeling frustrated while at a friend’s place because she couldn’t figure out what her baby needed.

“So this baby was crying for a good 10 minutes straight before she stopped crying, and I honestly had thought I’d broken the dang thing,” Broekman laughs.

Despite her best efforts, Broekman lost marks.

Brittney Broekman is a Grade 11 student who recently took her turn to take care of an electronic baby as part of a CALM class requirement. The teen pregnancy prevention method has been used at Olds High School for 15 years now. Photo by Deanna Tucker

Leppa says the program doesn’t pretend to stop all unplanned teen pregnancies, but she says students mention how impactful the program has been while walking across the stage during graduation.“There’s been the odd one that has shared the memory of the best form of birth control was taking the baby in CALM.”

Teen pregnancy continues to impact Alberta, something Heather Kipling – acting director of Alberta Health Service communications in central Alberta – confirmed in an email response. Vital Statistics reports in 2015 that there were 134 births in Alberta’s central zone among teens 11- to 18-years-old. The central zone includes Olds, Red Deer and Lloydminster among others.

Funding for a $1,200 doll

Sherry Leppa started the Baby Program as part of her CALM class requirements 15 years ago. The microchipped doll connects to the student with a microchipped wristband. At the end of the student’s time with the doll, she can print a report on how they fared as a teen parent for a weekend. Photo by Deanna Tucker

For Leppa, the key is to help young people understand the magnitude of parenting, which is why she’s looking to expand the baby fleet.

Leppa is applying for funding to buy a 5-pack of new and improved microchip babies, called RealCare Baby 3. The newer $1,200 version logs temperature, requires clothing changes and tracks how much time the doll spends in the car seat versus in the arms of the student.

The purchase would help to replenish her depleted stock, which has lasted 15 years. Two of the five babies no longer work because of dead batteries.

The upgraded babies will prevent students from finding workarounds like propping the bottle in the baby’s mouth using the car seat or rocking the car seat with a foot while doing homework.

Matchullis sits in class with his electronic baby, Claire, laying in the car seat under his desk. He was able to escape class with only a couple coos from the baby, admitting it was a rarity that day that there wasn’t a commotion. Photo by Thomas Bogda

Although Leppa realizes that some students want to have a family one day, she believes there are aspects of parenting that require much more than what students are able to give, and she wants them to understand what it takes.

“I’m taking the glamour out of what parenting is, but just for young people,” she says.

Broekman says even though she was required to do the program to pass her CALM class, she thought it was a good lesson to learn “because taking care of a baby is not easy or simple.” But asked whether or not she would do it again, the teen quickly responded, “No!”

I’d rather sleep through the night than be up multiple times trying to take care of the thing.”

tbogd992@mtroyal.ca

dtuck813@mtroyal.ca

Editor: Mason Benning | mbenning@cjournal.ca