Student didn’t let pregnancy keep her from graduating

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SALISBURY — When Katrina Merck got pregnant at 16 years old, she could have easily let it keep her from graduating. Instead, she finished her classes at West Rowan High School a semester early. Her daughter, Cali, is now 18 months old.
Merck initially dropped out of school when she found out she was pregnant, missing the last semester of her sophomore year in 2010.
“When I got pregnant with Cali, I never thought I’d walk across the stage,” Merck said. “I thought then and there that I was done with school and I was going to be a dropout.”
During a beach trip that summer, her mother and Cali’s father, David “D.J.” Whitley Jr., both encouraged her to go back to school in the fall. Whitley, who had just graduated from high school, told Merck that their daughter should know that she needs graduate high school, no matter what.
So Merck met with counselor Allison Doby to find out her options. “We talked, and she told me what I had to do to walk across the stage,” she said.
Once Cali was born, Merck stayed home for eight weeks, and she completed her schoolwork at home so she wouldn’t fall behind in her classes.
“I was determined that in order for Cali to have a great life, I had to get through high school and have a career going,” Merck said. “I knew I had to figure out what I needed to do to become a better person to be better for her.”
Merck said she didn’t hang out with people much, and she lost a lot of her hobbies and her friends. She didn’t play sports or participate in other after-school activities. Merck also didn’t attend prom, she said, because she just didn’t want to go anymore after she became a mother.
To make up for the missed classes, Merck said she would go to school for four classes and take two more online once she got home. She focused on the core requirements for graduation and didn’t take electives that weren’t needed. “At the end of my first semester (of senior year), Ms. Doby said all my credits were coming forward, and I could graduate early,” she said.
Merck was surprised and happy for herself. This meant she could devote her time to the job that she was already doing on weekends — working as a dental assistant in an orthodontist’s office. She quickly finished courses at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to become certified, and she is now employed full-time at Dr. Kevin J Showfety’s office.
Merck said her mom and Cali’s father have both been very supportive of her. “My mom is like my hero,” Merck said. “I’ve watched her struggle when I was little. I just knew I could do it. … My mom stood behind me through everything I did and the choices I made.”
Merck’s mother, Shelby, said she’s very proud of her daughter and all that she has accomplished. “I tell her not to worry about what people say, to keep her head up high and be strong,” she said. “Life’s a challenge anyway. Just do your best at what you want.”
Whitley took Merck to school every day and picked her up every day while working third shift at the Food Lion warehouse. When neither of them could watch Cali, friends and family stepped in to help. Now her aunt takes care of Merck’s daughter while she is at work.
Marck said she struggled in school and could have ended up dropping out even without having a baby. But having Cali made her grow up and gave her a new motivation to get through high school.
“I’m excited,” Merck said. “I can’t wait to walk across the stage and be proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of myself.”
Even though things are working out for Merck, that doesn’t mean she thinks becoming a mother as a teenager is a good idea.
“You know the show ‘Teen Mom’? I hate that show,” Merck said. “They get money for doing that show. … They don’t have to struggle like we do.”
She said getting pregnant as a teenager won’t automatically mean that you can get government help, either. Cali’s father made too much money at his job to qualify for medical or child care assistance.
“At the end of day, it’s you who has to get up and raise that child and take care of that child,” Merck said.
She said she wants to encourage others not to give up on their goals, even if it takes some more studying or more work than they thought.
“No matter what you go through in life — there’s always a way, and you just have to take it one day at a time,” Merck said. “You just have to set your mind on what you want to do.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.