Special Reports

Millenium baby is defying the naysayers

KINGSBURG -- Eleven-and-a-half years ago, Sarah Cortéz briefly became the San Joaquín Valley's most famous teen mom.

On the night of Dec. 31, 1999, when most of her classmates from Sanger High School were ringing in the new year, Sarah -- who was a 15-year-old sophomore at the time -- laid on a bed at Community Medical Center in Clovis, prepared to give birth.

The doctor -- who had delivered Sarah less than two decades earlier -- arrived at the hospital that night in his tuxedo and top hat, having come straight from a New Year's Eve party to deliver Sarah's baby. Nurses in the hallway popped open a bottle of sparkling cider once the clock struck midnight.

Three minutes into the year 2000, Isaac Robert Cortéz was born, becoming the region's "millennium baby."

The next day, Isaac's birth was celebrated by the local media. The Fresno Bee ran a front page story about Sarah and Isaac, with the headline 'Birth of a new millennium.'

But Isaac's high-profile birth came with criticism, said Sarah, who now is 27 and the site supervisor and assistant director of a Kingsburg daycare facility.

As she and her son, now 11, sat side-by-side in a Kingsburg McDonald's last Friday night, Sarah recalled being publicly criticized for having a child at such a young age. At that time, she said, people predicted that Isaac would be incarcerated by age 15.

Those words stung. But they also made her push herself extra hard in school and in her career, to ensure a better life for her and her son.

"It made me just want more out of life," Sarah said. She wanted "to show people that just because this happened, it is not going to hold me back from what I want in my life."

Today, Sarah and Isaac -- who is occasionally still referred to as 'Lil Milli,' in recognition of his memorable birthday -- have proven people, and the statistics, wrong.

It hasn't been easy.

"It has been a long journey, and I'm pretty sure it's not over yet," Sarah said. "But I'm going to be 100 percent supportive of whatever he wants to do in life."

"I think that's the best that any parent can do, as a young teen mother or an older adult when they have their children -- that is just the best you can give your child."

From the beginning, Sarah's experience as a teen mom was unique. When Sarah -- the third of four daughters -- became pregnant, her mother, Bárbara Cortéz, promised to support her daughter.

"I knew that it would be a lot harder for her, because she was now having the baby, and knowing she wanted to pursue her teaching degree," said Bárbara, who recently retired from Wallin Funeral Homes in Sanger. Sarah's father has worked at JetPlástica in Fowler for 25 years.

"I knew it was going to be a lot harder for her, though we were going to be there to support her."

Sarah is grateful for her parents' support, which allowed her to continue her education once her son was born, and to experience high school like a typical teenager does.

"I still went to all my dances, I went to my prom, I went to Grad Night," Sarah said. "If it wasn't for my parents, I wouldn't have been able to do any of that stuff, because they were willing to watch him when all of this came up."

After graduating with her high school class in 2002, Sarah pursued her associate's degree in early childhood education at Reedley College. She worked during the day at a daycare in Sanger, and attended college in the evening.

"It was hard, but to become what I wanted to become, it was what I needed to do," Sarah said.

She began working at Jubilee City Preschool & Daycare in Kingsburg about five years ago.

A little less than a year ago, she and Isaac moved to Kingsburg, where they live with Sarah's fiancée. Isaac's birth father is no longer in the picture.

As Sarah has worked, Isaac -- who just finished fifth grade at Reagan Elementary School in Kingsburg -- has excelled in school. He has played baseball, and plans to try out for a team in the city's football league.

He is a quiet kid who appears to be shy -- until he and his mother share a funny moment, and then he breaks into a big, toothy grin. He is almost as tall as his mother, who measures about five feet.

Sarah could see her son becoming a police office when he grows up. But her main goal for him, she said, is "to graduate high school first of all, and then to go to college."

And to not fall into the problems that are stastically more common among teen mothers and their sons, including incarceration and poverty.

"I don't want that to happen for him, so I have always tried my best for him to have a good life, just like any other child would if their parents were 30 and having him," she said.

Sarah and her three sisters, plus their combined seven children, gather at their childhood home in rural Sanger on Dec. 31 almost every year to celebrate New Year's Eve. They ensure Isaac's birthday does not get lost amidst the winter celebrations.

"We always tell him, 'everyone around the world is celebrating your birthday right now,'" Sarah said. "Once it hits 12:03 a.m., after the ball has dropped, we all sit around the table and sing him 'Happy Birthday.'"

Then they eat the cake Isaac has picked out. One year, it was one of those "humongous" cookie cakes, Sarah said.

It's a festive tradition to celebrate a great kid, whose future is much brighter than the critics imagined a decade ago.

"Her (story) probably turned out a happier ending than most would have," Bárbara Cortéz said. "We are pretty happy with the way things turned out."

She added: "We never regretted her having the baby, but other kids should probably pay attention to what they're going to go through in the future, and the difficulties they might have."

Sarah offered advice to recent teen moms who might be facing those difficulties now.

"Show everyone that just because you get pregnant at a young age doesn't mean your life is going to completely come to a halt," she said.

"It is just a speed bump that you have to try and go over. It might take a little longer, but eventually you'll get there if you push yourself."

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