OAKLAND -- She was 13 when she broke the news to her middle school boyfriend: Their baby daughter was on the way. She was 15 when she gave birth to their second child, a son.

"I was talked about, put down," said Alejandra Alvarado, now 18. "Teachers thought it was wrong. My family didn't know what to say. They were upset, disappointed."

She could have spiraled into despair, but Alvarado and her 4-year-old daughter, Giselle, and 2-year-old son, Angel, defied the bleak trajectory that families led by single teen moms are expected to follow. Alvarado is in college aiming for a career in radiology. The kids are happy and healthy.

Alejandra Alvarado, 18, and her two kids, Giselle, 4, left,  and Angel, 2, play at the offices of Brighter Beginnings in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec.
Alejandra Alvarado, 18, and her two kids, Giselle, 4, left, and Angel, 2, play at the offices of Brighter Beginnings in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17 2013. They will be going home with the stack of boxes filled with gifts thanks to the Adopt-A-Family holiday program which matches donors with low income families to provide them with holiday gifts.Brighter Beginnings is a non-profit with the mission of supporting healthy births and successful development of children by partnering with parents. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

"I thought about things I didn't have, and what would I want for them. Having nice stuff, having what they want to play with," Alvarado said. "It inspired me to wake up every day just to make a better future for them."

Also helping to secure her path to a better place was Brighter Beginnings, an organization that helps East Bay parents -- many of them teenagers -- raise healthy children.

The East Oakland teenager first came into contact with the organization -- with offices in Oakland, Richmond and Antioch -- through its teen family support division, which links young mothers and fathers with health care services, emotional support and positive role models.

Now Alvarado is giving back as an "alumni leader" who teaches sex education and pregnancy prevention at local schools. Her candid lessons resonate with high school students, she said, because the advice comes from a peer.

"I tell them it's not easy. I tell them about my everyday life," she said.

That's a life that begins at 5:30 each morning, "just to get the day ready" at a time when most of her peers are asleep. Now it includes commuting by bus to Merritt College -- which has an on-site day care -- to pursue an education she hopes will lead to a career as an ultrasound technician. She takes her first radiology course this coming semester.

Giselle and Angel, Alvarado's chatty and energetic children, got their own boost from Brighter Beginnings just days before Christmas when donated gifts arrived through the organization's Adopt-a-Family program. The family celebrated the holiday with traditional Mexican pozole and tamales at the home where they live with Alvarado's mom, stepdad and two brothers. Some family members still don't talk to her, but others have been a big help, Alvarado said.

Many of the nation's resources focused on teen pregnancy are striving to prevent it. And it's a winning cause, with the birthrate by women under 20 cut by half since 1991 and now at the lowest level since the government began measuring in 1940, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But along with a "real emphasis on prevention, which there should be," there remains a need to help support teens who are already raising children, said Daniel Winokur, director of development at Brighter Beginnings. About 1,800 babies were born to teen moms in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in 2010, the last year for which such data is available. Making sure the parents are not a stigmatized "lost cause" and that they find the strength to steer away from poverty, child neglect and substance abuse is a key objective of the 30-year-old East Bay nonprofit group.

"They get this real sense of, 'OK, I screwed up, now everybody's mad at me,'" Winokur said. "They find themselves written off, and then they realize there's a whole life ahead of them."