Aimless, using drugs and couch surfing for warm places to sleep, 19-year-old Nichole Baker found herself unexpectedly pregnant by a new boyfriend and ill-equipped to cope.
"I was scared. I didn't know what to do," said Baker, now 27, last week.
She doesn't remember how, but somehow she found and made her way to the Face to Face medical and mental health clinic on a scruffy stretch of Arcade Street on St. Paul's East Side.
Her subsequent journey from lost teen to stable adult is an exemplary one for the clinic, which will celebrate 40 years with an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday.
The clinic provides free and sliding-fee care for anyone from ages 11 to 23, and operates a drop-in center for homeless youth in downtown St. Paul. Help can come in the form of prenatal care, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, bus fare, money for college application fees or just a comfortable spot for an afternoon nap.
Executive Director Lynda Bennett said Face to Face clients typically have had "tremendous barriers in their lives," including abusive or unstable homes, and they often can't recover from a problem like those from stable backgrounds.
"The littlest crisis that hits them puts them at the risk of losing everything," she said.
The clinic serves 3,400 youths annually through its programs, including a charter high school with 65 students in the same building.
What makes the program unique is its numerous pillars of support. Afternoon snacks and bus tokens are given to everyone. A computer lab is available. On the wall above the health clinic's scale is a free food shelf with cans of soup and vegetables.
"Our whole goal is to help people get on their feet and stay on their feet," Bennett said. "When young people don't have that ability to bounce back, we're there to provide safety nets."
The clinic started in 1972, a year after the state Legislature gave minors the right to consent to medical and mental health services related to pregnancy, venereal disease, alcohol and drug abuse.
It grew steadily and now has a $3.6 million annual budget, 42 percent of which comes from government grants.
Monday's celebration will be about survival so far and hope for another 40 years, as well as public awareness.
"It's an opportunity, if people are interested, to see where patients are falling through the cracks in the health care system," said Dana Hays, development director at the clinic.
Baker once was among them until she walked into Face to Face, ashamed and worried. "They didn't make me feel like I was a crappy person because I'd made mistakes," she said.
The clinic staff attended to her needs, she said, with child-rearing classes and health care. She learned she could get free diapers and formula if she needed. "I knew that I had them to back me up and support me," she said.
She met other pregnant young women going through the same experience. She made a memory box for her unborn child, and returned for Christmas parties and a second pregnancy. She knew she could walk in and get whatever she needed that day -- no appointment needed.
"They offer themselves as an extended family," she said.
Too old for the clinic now, she continues to see her Face to Face physician at a St. Paul practice.
Baker's boyfriend became her husband. Together they have three children and live in a Minneapolis townhouse, and are preparing to close soon on a home near Princeton, Minn. Early this year, Baker fulfilled a childhood dream of running a photography business -- www.shootingyour stars.com -- that has taken off faster than she imagined.
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson