From homeless teen mom to doctor: Anchorage woman overcomes obstacles

April DeLira wasn't yet a teenager when she became homeless in Anchorage. She was just starting high school when she found out she was pregnant.

Raised with men who she said physically and sexually abused her, she found life on the street "safer than being at home." At times she spent her nights in abandoned buildings, crashing parties or sometimes staying with strangers, with whom she traded cooking and cleaning services for "a spot on the floor in the corner."

Today, though, her life is much different: She's a resident physician in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis. She got married four years ago and now has two children, a 3-year-old daughter and her 20-year-old son, Casey.

"It was terrifying when I found out I was pregnant," DeLira, now 35, said of her first pregnancy in 1993. "I found out the day I was going to start ninth grade. I was at the bus stop, getting ready to take the People Mover to East High School, not knowing the implications."

DeLira said it wasn't long before she felt pressured to withdraw from high school. At the age of 15, and with a newborn in tow, she proceeded to live a transient lifestyle. She had previously been homeless, off and on, since she was just 11 years old.

"I didn't really see myself as homeless. I don't think I knew what homeless was; I wasn't sleeping on the street," said DeLira. "I considered having a place to sleep at night not homeless -- even if I was staying at an abandoned house. I didn't have a lot of experience. I had a lack of knowledge about what was normal."

But through all of her varied and less-than-ideal living situations, she also found a "home" at Covenant House, the teen homeless shelter in downtown Anchorage. It was there she learned to play pingpong and once ate a Thanksgiving meal with a Star Trek fan club.

She'd first stayed at Covenant House when she was 12, using her sister's name because she had to be at least 13 to stay at the facility. She would look out the window of the shelter and watch people as they strolled by.

"The Thanksgiving and Christmas season, in particular, was an amazing time to be with them," DeLira said. "The original Covenant House was across from the performing arts center and my regular room had a window facing it. Covenant House is where I met my first real best friend, Rose. We were both 'regulars' and spent night after night watching the families come and go, all dressed up."

Teen parents weren't allowed to stay at Covenant House, but she began working with the nonprofit's outreach program after spending four months in Nome and then returning to Anchorage. They helped enroll her in educational programs, gave her work and provided a safe place for her son while she worked toward a high school diploma.

When she was without a regular place to live, she stayed with friends for weeks at a time, attempted to make a relationship work with her son's father, moved to California to live with her own father and eventually returned to Alaska.

"It was day-to-day, do what you have to do, and you didn't have the time to think beyond that," said DeLira. "That's what it was like for a few years." She described times in her youth in which she traded "services and things" for food, and other times just went hungry.

Through Covenant House, she met Barbara Dexter, a teen outreach specialist. DeLira said when she wasn't where she needed to be, "Barb" would track her down. And as DeLira got older, Dexter continued to support her.

DeLira received her high school diploma in 1997 at the age of 18. Dexter was at her graduation. And in June, when DeLira graduated from medical school at the University of Washington, Dexter attended the ceremony.

"When my own parents dropped me, didn't show up, didn't call, Casey's dad wasn't there or there was any situation where I was left to feel alone, I could stop and remember that there were a lot of people who cared for us," said DeLira.

She said Covenant House never left her, and because of the "love" she was given there, DeLira said, she will continue to help others like her -- teens and young parents who aren't given the same luxuries that "normal" teenagers are.

DeLira said she and her son have gone to an "extensive amount of therapy to process" all that has happened in their lives, although she doesn't believe that Casey remembers much.

Both mother and son have done volunteer work to give back to society and repay what's been done for them.

"I think he forgets sometimes and I have to remind him why we are where we are. I remind him of all the people it took around us to get here," she said.

DeLira and Casey no longer live near each other, though. DeLira said her son stayed in Seattle while she, her toddler and husband moved to Memphis, where even as a professional she's trying to give to those who need her help.

"We were looking for a place where there was health disparities and low income," DeLira said.

She said she hopes to one day come back to Alaska to help people in rural communities, as specialty doctors can be hard to find in some of the state's more remote areas.

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.