Battling misconceptions: Faced with challenges, family overcomes the odds

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 1:00 a.m. MST

John Pedersen is attending college, though children raised in poverty are less likely to.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — John Pedersen sits next to his wife in a local diner on a recent Friday, mulling his past as he cuts into a slice of cheesecake. If statistics were always right, he'd be very different. In fact, John and Melissa probably wouldn't be sitting here at all.

His background is the stuff of research studies and predictions: Grew up with a severely drug-addicted parent, spent as little time at home as possible as a teen, got his girlfriend pregnant. But instead of fulfilling the forecast, which says that's a bad way to launch a successful long-term relationship or find stable employment, John and Melissa are trying hard to buck the odds.

Those odds, experts say, are both distressing and unassailable — and they are often "just life" for children growing up in homes where resides addictions, poverty and other challenges. Kids who come from these sorts of backgrounds are often forgotten and invisible to the broader world, their futures seemingly already decided by the circumstances in which they grow.

As many as 13.3 million children lived in poverty in 2008, according to the national organization Child Trends, which tracks childhood wellbeing. Statistically, that fact alone makes a child more likely to earn lower grades, drop out of school and have health and behavioral problems compared to better-off peers. Parental addictions can cause many of the same harms. Addicted parents often fail to create structure or discipline, but expect their kids to be more competent than other parents would expect at many things.

Teen parents almost never go to college. They have lower earning potential. And teen pregnancy is typically death to relationships, says Jessica Sheets Pika, spokeswoman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

John Pedersen had nearly every one of these odds stacked against him. The pregnancy could have stifled not only John's future, but his wife Melissa's as well.

Instead, here they sit, seven years later, snuggled companionably in a booth, munching on cheesecake and laughing as they tell a near-stranger about the budding chemistry — theirs — in their 10th-grade chemistry class at Hillcrest High.

They have two kids now: Hailey, who's almost 6, and Kamden, who's 18 months old.

John has been working at ARUP for nearly three years, and he goes to college. School has been a long slog, punctuated by time off to work full time when finances demanded it. Melissa completed college and is a registered nurse, working at Valley Mental Health.

And though money's tight and they're back living with her parents again — they did that early in their marriage — this time they moved in to save the down payment for the house they hope to close on. They would have the house keys except a woman with the same name owes a medical debt that was mistakenly placed on their credit report, and they've had to wait for that to clear up. They hope it's soon.

More nuance than number

Pedersen has a mental blueprint of the kind of life he'd like to create for his own kids. The list is pretty straightforward. He'd like a nice, clean house where he and his wife can invite friends over. And he'd also like family vacations — at least one a year. "I've never been to Disneyland and I'd like to go once," he says, his face smiling but his voice a little wistful.

About the only similarity you find in John's and Melissa's childhoods is the year they were born; they're both 26. She grew up in a religious household, while John's mom, Carol Pedersen, says she and her late husband decided early on to let the kids find their own way religiously. John has chosen belief; he converted to Melissa's LDS faith when he was 19.

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