Child of Unwed Mother in '92 Grad Photo to Get Her Diploma

Filed under: In The News, Single Parenting, Amazing Parents

Zoey Gilbert, 18, is about to graduate Ventura High School where her mother Cyndi Gilbert commenced 18 years ago. Credit: Karen Quincy Loberg, vcstar.com

Eighteen years ago, 17-year-old Cyndi Gilbert walked with her classmates to receive her diploma from Buena High School in Ventura, Calif., while her daughter, Zoey, smiled in the stands. Next week, Zoey, now 18, will graduate in the very same stadium, and Gilbert will be in the stands cheering her on.

Gilbert's photo on the front page of the 1992 Star Free Press, with her baby in her arms as she wore her cap and gown, drew a flurry of controversial letters to the editors. Credit: vcstar.com

Just 7 weeks old when her mom graduated in 1992, little Zoey's presence at her mom's high school graduation caused quite a stir after a photo of them appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, the Ventura Star-Free Press. The image of Gilbert in cap and gown holding her newborn prompted a number of critical letters to the editor, the Ventura County Star reports, over the decision to feature an unwed teenage mother on the front page.

"I read those letters and I thought they were just ignorant of what I had to overcome to get there," Gilbert tells the County Star. "My mom asked me if I wanted to walk (at graduation), and I told her I wanted to. She (Zoey) was there to share that moment with me."

Nearly 20 years later, the story of an unwed teen mom would likely still raise more than a few eyebrows -- even though magazine covers glamorize out-of-wedlock births to notables such as Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears. In fact, nearly 40 percent of babies born in the United States in 2007 were to unwed mothers, according to data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, though the birth rate among unmarried teens has seen a dramatic decline from 50 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2007.

Yet Gilbert's story is one of perseverance and hard work, triumph and success.

A student athlete playing varsity volleyball, Gilbert was in her junior year of high school when she found out she was pregnant. She tells the Star she didn't think twice about keeping the baby, adding that her parents raised her and her five siblings "in the Christian church," and that the news of her pregnancy was a hard blow to her family, but they were loving and supportive throughout.

As it turned out, both Gilbert and Zoey needed that support. Gilbert gave birth to Zoey on April 17, 1992, after three months of bed rest and a complicated delivery. Zoey was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, a life-threatening congenital heart defect which causes low levels of circulating oxygen in the blood, and was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center for successful open heart surgery just five days later.

But two months later, Zoey suffered a stroke and was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center, where doctors told Gilbert her daughter would never be of normal intelligence and would probably never play sports, according to the County Star.

That was a turning point for Gilbert, who tells the newspaper she realized it was "time to grow up," focus on her goals and raise her child.

She attended Ventura College, started playing volleyball again and took a waitressing job that allowed her and Zoey to move into their own apartment. After receiving her associate degree two years later, she moved to South Bend, Ind., to attend Bethel College on a volleyball scholarship. It was there that she met her husband, Von Gilbert, and had her son, Isaac, now 13.

After Von Gilbert finished his degree, the young family moved back to Ventura, where Gilbert went back to school and earned a bachelor's degree in nursing, and then had their third child, Caleb, now 7.

Today, against all odds, Zoey is a healthy 18-year-old who loves to surf and has played soccer, basketball and volleyball throughout her life, despite her open heart surgery, stroke and three subsequent angioplasties.

Zoey plans to attend William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., to study business -- and, just like her mom, she has been awarded a volleyball scholarship. She hopes to attend UCLA Medical School to become a pediatric neurologist.

"I want to help other babies and young children who are going through what I went through," she tells the County Star.

Zoey has promised herself she will not have sex before marriage, and credits her decision to learning from her mother's past, as well as a determination to make "smart decisions" that will allow her to graduate from college and pursue a medical career.

Gilbert is now a pediatric nurse at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and tells the County Star she hopes to organize a program to counsel teen mothers. She says teen pregnancy is a reality, and that there are a lot of scared young mothers out there who don't have the support she did.

"If you think about it, I beat all of the odds," Gilbert explains. "I don't attribute that to myself. I attribute that to my support system, because I just could not have done it without them."

Related: Oh, Baby: Teen Mom Blogs Pregnancy on YouTube

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