LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Nearly half of Louisiana kids — 45 percent — live with only one parent, 10 points higher than the national percentage, according to the Kids Count Data Center's most recent data.

Thirty-five percent of children in the U.S. are in single-parent households. Each family comes with its own story, with different backgrounds and situations.

Toni Genova of Alexandria was surprised to learn she was pregnant at 36.

She'd been told she couldn't have children. Her daughter is 23 now and a single mother herself.

Chaulaun McZeal of Lafayette has been a single mother since she was 20, raising three kids on her own.

Shahna Ferrell of Shreveport-Bossier was married when she had their daughter, but then left the abusive relationship before she turned 2.

"It's been just me and her since then," Ferrell said.

Their stories are different, but they share many of the same struggles — costs, discipline problems and the worry their children also will struggle.

"Compared with children in married-couple families, children raised in single-parent households are more likely to drop out of school, to have or cause a teen pregnancy and to experience a divorce in adulthood," according to Kids Count.

The percentage in Louisiana seems to be increasing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52.9 percent of children born in Louisiana in 2015 were born to single mothers.

Who are they?

Ferrell and her daughter have lived several different places, including a home where she worked as a live-in nanny.

"I didn't get paid, but we got a roof over our heads for about a year," she said.

Today, they call the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission home. She found it when her family needed it.

"By the grace of God, the mission answered my phone call," Ferrell said. "... I absolutely feel safe here."

And her daughter enjoys being around the other kids there.

"She considers this just one big playtime," Ferrell said.

In the year they've been at the mission, Ferrell has completed a nine-month discipleship program as well as vocational training in its help desk, distribution center and thrift store.

She's working on getting a job in the area as a receptionist or secretary, she said.

Chaulaun McZeal, said being a single parent to three children, now ages 10, 16 and 20, "has always been a challenge."

She describes her daily routine for the past 20 years as getting up, get the kids up, get them ready for school or summer camp, take them, go to work, pick them up, go home or to practice. Homework, projects, dinner, baths, bed.

Then do it all over again the next day.

"It's a full day, and pretty much I did this on my own. ... I didn't have much help," she said. "My mother passed away when I was 26. The father (of the children) was not there."

But she made do, of course.

"I did what I had to do for my kids," she said. "(Having a child) really puts you into responsibility. It's no longer just you."

Toni Genova's pregnancy was a blessing, but a challenging one.

Her daughter was born with her liver on the outside in a sac and had to have surgery soon after.

It was detected early on in the pregnancy, so Genova prepared for more than nine months with extra doctor's appointments in Alexandria and New Orleans.

"She's been a challenge ever since," Genova said lightheartedly.

They were challenges she faced mostly alone.

"I was there in New Orleans by myself about seven days," she said.

They have some family in Central Louisiana and someone who watched Katie at her home while she worked part-time.

"I could go to work knowing someone was taking care of her," Genova said.

She got off in time to pick her up from school, which was their routine until high school.

"Once she could drive herself, I went back to work full-time," Genova said.

Katie, now 23, recently went back to work after maternity leave. She has a 2-month-old son, Sammy. They live with Genova.

"It's definitely been difficult," Katie said.

Genova said her daughter fell to the floor crying after she saw the positive pregnancy test. But they've gotten through it together, from doctors' appointments to late-night feedings.

"We try to help each other out," Genova said.

Katie is thankful for the help from her mom. It's opened her eyes to what Toni must have gone through, especially in the middle of the night.

"Being here with her has been a huge help," Katie said. "She didn't have anyone."

Challenges, particularly in Louisiana

Typical parenting challenges often are amplified in single-parent households.

"I'm learning to live with no sleep," Katie said.

And her mom's biggest challenge raising her was high school, Genova said. Katie laughed and agreed.

"That was a rough patch," she said.

For Ferrell, it's trying to be there for her daughter when it comes to school and events, like daddy-daughter dances.

"That's really the hardest thing — seeing her have to struggle," Ferrell said. "But I tell her, 'Mommy loves you enough for both of us.'"

McZeal would agree. Dealing with behavior issues was extra hard on her own.

"It just makes such a big difference having both parents in the home or just actively involved in the child's life," she said.

Then there are the financial costs.

Single-parent families are more likely to live in poverty.

The poverty threshold for a single person with two children is $19,337 a year. For one child, it's $19 less.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 19.6 percent of people in Louisiana were living in poverty in 2016.

For children in Louisiana that figure is higher — 29 percent, well above the national number (19 percent) below the poverty threshold.

And a full-time job might not be enough to lift a family out of poverty.

Without access to benefits and tax credits, a single parent with two children would need to earn $9.55 per hour — $2.30 more than the current federal minimum wage — working full time just to reach the poverty level, according to Kids Count's 2017 report.

The United Way calls those in this category ALICE — asset limited, income constrained, employed.

ALICE and poverty households represent more than 30 percent of those in the majority of towns and cities within each Louisiana parish, according to the United Way's Study of Financial Hardship for Louisiana.

The Bayou State ranked among the least affordable for single parents in the South, as child care can cost half of their income.

"In Louisiana, single parents pay 28 percent of their income for infant center care, and 52 percent of their income for center care for two children," according to "The Parents and the High Cost of Child Care: 2016 Report" from Child Care Aware of America.

Raising children is more than a one-person job, so they look to others for help — family, if they're close by, churches and nonprofits.

And if they are going to work, they need child care, whether that means a center, a school or Grandma's house.

Katie's cousin watches Sammy while she's at work. She runs a daycare in her home with a few children. Genova picks him up, and Katie rushes from work to see him at home.

"I only get a few hours with him," Katie said. "That's a huge change (from maternity leave)."

McZeal's kids went to daycare until they were old enough for public school, so she could work. She also used Head Start through Lafayette Public School system and SMILE.

"As a parent you have to make sure they have a safe place," she said. "As long as my children were in a safe place I could go to work."

She often had to stay home from work with a sick child, something parents know too well. And as a single parent, she didn't have many other options.

"I did have some close friends who helped when they could — when I was really in need ... but most of the time the load of the responsibility pretty much fell on me," she said, adding again, "You do what you have to."

She thanks God for having a "pretty understanding" job.

"A lot of employers and businesses are not understanding," she said. "It's tough if you work in an industry like that."

McZeal also was thankful for assistance from the state in paying for daycare. But the help fluctuated.

As the Louisiana budget changed, that funding changed, she explained.

"Sometimes it was a big help and sometimes not so much," McZeal said, literally sighing.

Where to go for help

She turned to local organizations like the United Way of Acadiana to help fill the gaps, as many single parents in the area do.

Aaron Williams, community collaboration manager for the organization, said United Way's early Head Start program is geared toward parents who are low-income and often single parents.

He said there's a big need for the program that is invaluable to families.

"You can't put a price on it," Williams said. "It's not just a sitting service. They learn the basics and make sure they are grade-level ready for when they start school."

The Lafayette center has about 70 to 100 enrolled from infant to pre-K, and there's another in Abbeville, Williams said.

"It is a valued service to parents who can't afford (child care) or struggle to pay for it," he said.

But helping single parents means more than helping with day care. United Way aims to support the whole family in tangible and intangible ways, like teaching how to save.

Williams manages financial stability programs like Money Smart, a free financial literacy course that takes about four hours. It is taught by branch managers of local banks.

It covers budgeting, building credit, ways to save and various banking products and targets "unbanked" people.

"It gives them the opportunity to connect to a bank, not just see the sign but a person," Williams said. "... It is taking individuals who may know nothing about banking or saving and teach them that."

It might sound simple, but it can be life-changing, Williams said.

"It's the type of knowledge that can change habits of individuals and get them to a place of stability no matter their level of income," he said.

He said a family's financial issues often are about more than just income.

"A lot of time it's mismanagement on top of lack of resources," he said.

As McZeal put it, you do what you have to do, put things on credit cards but then it adds up and you're "still stuck not moving forward."

So she participated in United Way's Incentivize Match Savings program, which offers one-on-one financial coaching for 12 months.

"We are trying to place long-term saving goals," Williams said. "In 12 months if they can save $1,500 to $4,000 then we match 50 percent of that. That is a huge return on investment."

The program began in Acadiana about two years ago and goes more in-depth than Money Smart.

"We work with them, look at your income, guide them to reach that goal," he said. "The value there is through the roof."

Building savings and self-esteem

United Way started with about 36 clients the first year in Lafayette, St. Martin and Acadia parishes. Eighteen followed through and saved collectively $48,000, Williams said.

"It's been a light to help me use better judgment about my credit and financing," McZeal said. "It's taught me about getting a budget together."

Another in the program is going to open her own salon with those savings, he said. That's not only future revenue, but stability for her family.

"Individuals are showing some great strides and changing habits for their households and families," he said.

McZeal said working with United Way helped put her finances into better perspective.

"I'm seeing things differently," she said. "I've learned how not to live outside our means."

The program has the potential to impact the community.

"The saving idea becomes a platform for vertical movement," Wiliams said. "There are so many opportunities that normally would not exist."

The United Way also helps fund Big Brothers, Big Sisters, which is specifically for kids of single parents. It offers professional mentorship and community-wide events.

Kids meet with mentors twice a month for at least a year.

"The gains we've seen there are pretty phenomenal — gains in self-esteem, ability to communicate to their peers and adults, academic, goal-setting," Williams said.

Those gains can have a ripple effect on the rest of the family.

"Because the kid is exposed to a greater standard of living the family can begin to model what the kid is seeing outside the home," he said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has about 500 kids on a waiting list and 200 to 300 are being helped in Lafayette Parish, Williams said.

"All these programs have something specific to offer to single parents," Williams said.

"It takes a layer of programming to do it, not just one. Some focus on the kids, some on parents, some on the whole family. All are important."

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Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com