Shariya Small was 14 when she gave birth to triplets in 2020.
The infants, born at 26 weeks gestation, spent over five months in the neonatal intensive care unit at Indianapolis’ Community Hospital North, where Small, only in eighth grade at the time, met nurse Katrina Mullen.
“She’d be there alone for days at a time sitting at her babies’ bedside,” Mullen, 45, told TODAY.com, noting that Small refused to share information about her personal life. It wasn’t until Mullen revealed that she, too, had been a teen mom that a relationship between the pair began to bud.
“That’s when we really developed trust,” said the nurse, who has five children of her own.
Even after establishing a judgement-free space, Small was still hesitant to share too much, but it didn’t deter Mullen from offering her phone number to the young mom of three — just in case.
“I said, ‘If you need anything, you just call me. If you need to talk, or you have a question, I’m here,’” Mullen said.
Small took home her three newborns — Serenitee, Samari and Sarayah — and often FaceTimed and called Mullen, who “couldn’t figure out why” the teen mom was calling so frequently.
After taking a drive to Kokomo, Indiana, to see where they lived with a relative, Mullen was shocked: The infants slept together in a playpen while Small took the couch.
“It was not a place for her to raise babies,” Mullen admitted.
To make matters worse, Samari, Small’s son, had broken out in eczema and appeared to be “extremely skinny.” He had digestive issues since birth, and changing his formula hadn’t helped.
After being admitted to a hospital, clinicians diagnosed him with “failure to thrive,” meaning that his weight fell below the third or fifth percentile typically due to undernourishment.
That’s when Mullen received a call from the Department of Social Services (DSS).
“The caseworker said that Shariya and her babies were being removed from their home,” Mullen recalled. “And then she goes, ‘Shariya said she’d like to come live with you. Would you be willing?’”
She mulled it over. The nurse had three kids already at home — SeQuayvion, 16; ShaKovon, 14; and JJ, 7 — and two in their early 20s. But, knowing that “it would be impossible” to locate a foster home that would be willing to house a young mom with premature triplets, she knew what she had to do.
“I just kept thinking, ‘I have to do this,'” Mullen explained. “I knew Shariya was intelligent and resilient and she just needed a safe place to put her roots. I knew it would be hard, but we’d figure it out.”
Mullen enrolled in foster parent classes and collected supplies from friends and family. Cribs, strollers, clothes and bouncy chairs quickly filled her home. For 688 days, she fostered the teen and her triplets as Small pursued her diploma from an alternative high school.
Along the way, Small learned the ropes from the NICU nurse.
“In the beginning, it was me pretty much doing everything for the babies and her observing and participating when she felt confident. And now she’s in charge,” said Mullen. “I’ll watch them if she wants to go hang out with her friends and stuff that teenagers do.”
The 2-year-old toddlers can now count to 20 and are slowly learning new words, both in English and Spanish.
Mullen, whom the youngsters call “LaLa,” also established a GoFundMe to “build a financial cushion” for Small and her three kids. According to the fundraising page, the money will go towards college funds, housing costs, a car and more.
In the comments accompanying donations, people gushed over the family’s heartwarming story, as former teen moms and parents with several children offered their generosity.
“I was a teenage mom. I’m now 60. You can do this! Keep following your dreams and loving your babies!” wrote one person.
“This story has been the highlight of my week,” applauded another. “Best wishes to all of you! Sometimes people just need a little help and support. I hope this fundraiser helps you all get a great start in life!”
“It takes a village. Wishing great lives for all of you,” said someone else.
As of Saturday, they raised over $27,000 — surpassing the $20,000 goal.
“Has it been easy? No! She pushes limits just like any other teenager,” Mullen said. “But I love her. I’m her mom — and I’m never going anywhere.”
Small, now 17, has big plans to launch a social work career — and Mullen couldn’t be more proud to call her a daughter after officially adopting the teen in February.
“I’m so proud to be Shariya’s mom,” Mullen said. “She just amazes me every day. When she’s frustrated with the babies, she never raises her voice. She’s just blossoming into this incredible woman.”