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New Futures
Young Fathers

Odds were on these young men
becoming young fathers--but not
responsible parents.
This Catholic social-service
program changes all that.

Text by Kara Rhodes, photos by Don Nesbitt

Charles Perkins spends quality time with his three sons, Tyler (infant), Teron (center) and Charles III in Cincinnati.

Positive Energy in the Inner City
Putting Children First
Need For Parent Training
Meeting For Success
Defining Manhood

A gathering of 10 young men in a low-income housing area with a reputation for violence usually arouses police suspicion. Police officers, though, wave and smile as they drive by. The young men, the police know, are members of the Young Fathers Program, sponsored by St. John's Social Service Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. They gather twice a week, eager to talk with their peers who share their experiences. They are boys who have quickly become men, accepting the responsibility of fatherhood.

All of these young men are working to make their children's lives different from their own childhoods. They believe, and experts agree, the answer is to be active parents. They work hard for their children's respect. One, suspended from school last year for an entire quarter, now makes straight A's. Another, raising his own children, is also raising his 10-year-old sister, who wasn't getting the attention she needed from her home. Those who haven't finished school are working on their G.E.D.'s (high-school equivalency diplomas). Most have college in their future plans.

There are about 100 organizations similar to the Young Fathers Program around the United States. More are starting as community organizations realize that emphasis on birth control and teen mothers isn't reducing the number of pregnancies. This new societal awareness about young fathers is a chance for the Church to become involved with these men--as St. John's is doing.

"Young fathers need support and examples they can emulate," says Ken Canfield, president of the National Center for Responsible Fathers in Kansas and author of The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers and The Heart of a Father. "Right now younger generations are trying to find order in their lives of chaos. Norms need to be reinstituted. To keep from alienating teens in a new world, the Church needs to reformulate answers to age-old questions."

Positive Energy in the Inner City

St. John's Social Service Center, a Catholic organization, began the Young Fathers program nine years ago because it wanted to help the young fathers in the community be good fathers and responsible adults--for themselves, society and their children. The agency receives grants from United Way and the City of Cincinnati to help sponsor the program.

Most of the participants come from the surrounding neighborhood: They are African-American and grew up in low-income households with no resident fathers. Beyond sports figures, many of these men can't name a male whom they admired when they were younger. Considering the odds, many of them have already defied society's expectations by staying out of jail or being killed. Others have been close to doing illegal things to make money. Many have dropped out of school.

Because of their lack of role models, they are unsure of how to be good fathers: how to show affection, how to discipline, how to change a diaper. With their involvement in the Young Fathers Program, it is clear they want to be responsible fathers who are respected by their children. They made the commitment to the Young Fathers Program to learn how.

Unlike many of their friends who also have children, these men have chosen to take their role seriously. Instead of playing sports or hanging out with friends now, these men are playing dolls with their children or buying family groceries. "The police love these guys now," Community Outreach Director Will Underwood says with a laugh. "They call us whenever they need community volunteers for a program."

Meeting for Success

About 25 of these young fathers meet twice a week in two different locations in the city to talk about fatherhood and life experiences. In their meeting room, there is a child's plastic table with several worn-looking toys strewn about. Today, though, nobody has brought kids. Posters on the wall proclaim parental information: "Stop using words that hurt...start using words that help." "Never, never shake your baby." "A moment of irresponsibility...a lifetime of responsibility." A cross-stitch sampler on the far wall strikes a lighter note: "Your baby isn't spoiled, they all smell that way." There are Head Start brochures and "How to Stay Drug-Free" pamphlets.

"Our goals are to help these guys become self-sufficient while teaching them to be responsible fathers," says Frank Adamore, who managed the program for five years. He underlines the program's emphasis on manly responsibility: "Our philosophy is, 'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.'"

Adamore encourages his participants constantly. "I urge them to hug their children and tell them 'I love you' regularly," he says. "These guys didn't have those experiences when they were growing up so it doesn't seem natural to them to do that"

A while ago some of these men professed an interest in having more programs directed at money management. They agreed that learning about economics was one of the most important steps to becoming independent of others' help. To help them learn, Adamore designed one session a week dedicated to learning about financial things like CD's, 401(k)'s and stocks.

For today's meeting, Carlis, a 27-year-old father of five, has brought a Wall Street Journal and wants to discuss mutual funds. He explains "low risk" to the rest of the group. By the end of the session they have agreed to find a stockbroker and combine their money to invest together. "Apart we don't have much," Carlis says. "But together we have enough to make a nice profit." Carlis works full-time doing building maintenance and construction for the block of buildings owned by St. John's. He has been involved in the program for over seven years.

Carlis tells everyone he has been saving 50 cents a day since the beginning of the year with plans to invest the money eventually. "I know it's not much," he admits when the other guys laugh, but Adamore jumps in with support. "You have to quit stumbling sometime, otherwise you stumble your entire life," he tells them.

The rest of the guys become quiet, thinking about the truth in that statement. A volunteer college student who attends the meetings quickly does the math for Carlis. He finds saving 50 cents a day will result in $182.50 savings at the end of the year. Some of the guys whistle admiringly. "See, it adds up," Adamore observes to the group. More important, he adds, making good habits and disciplining yourself will rub off on your kids. He recites a refrain often repeated in these meetings: "Your kids will do what you do."

The savings discussion continues, drifting to things the men would be willing to give up to save a couple of dollars every month (cable TV and rental videos are mentioned). Adamore focuses the conversation by asking how saving money now will help their children later. College tuition is the unanimous answer. Adamore agrees, and adds, "Watching you save now will teach kids how to plan for their future, too."

Putting Children First

These young men are here for their children's future. They want to be responsible fathers so their children's futures will be brighter. Statistics show that children who grow up in a one-parent home are more likely to become young parents themselves. The Young Fathers Program is trying to break the cycle of one-parent families.

While some of these men are married now, they weren't when their first or second child was born. "My kids better get used to me," says Josť, a 25-year-old father of two. "I promised them I'd always be there for them."

Josť married his girlfriend when she was five months pregnant with their first child. He comes to the meetings directly from work dressed in a suit. He has been involved with the Young Fathers Program for four years. "I began coming when my girlfriend was pregnant," he says. "The guys in the group who were already dads helped me think about things I'd never even considered about being a father."

Josť came to the United States from Puerto Rico with his mother and three brothers after their father deserted them when Josť was two. He has never had contact with his father since. Now Josť is able to give advice and act as a role model for the other young fathers. He owns his own small advertising firm and has been responsible for bringing in many financial speakers from various banks. "Most of us weren't taught how to manage money when we were kids," says Josť. "Economic empowerment is an important step to being responsible fathers."

Antonio, 21, a father of three, received an unofficial award from the group last year for being Mr. Mom. Program Director Adamore is proud of him, explaining how Antonio stays home to take care of the kids while his wife works. During the meeting today, Antonio talks at times about the activity table at home for his three kids and the piggy banks where they put money every day. He is a big man with a soft voice. Before today's meeting, Antonio went to a local nonprofit agency to get disposable diapers, toothbrushes and food. He is working to obtain his G.E.D.

The other meeting during the week is called a peer group session. "The group is open for discussion," Adamore explains. "We talk about everything, from relationships with the child's mother, discipline for the kids, street violence, substance abuse--everything these guys have to deal with every day."

More often than not, Adamore says, teen fathers are trapped by social problems: "It's so much easier to allow the mother of your child to take complete control when she's made it perfectly clear she doesn't want you involved," he says. For many, it's tempting to do something illegal and easy for money. Adamore points out that it's a lot harder doing what these young men are doing: going to school, working on their G.E.D. or working for minimum wage with three young children to support.

One group of men in the Young Fathers Program just finished writing a play about a 17-year-old who tried to take the easy way out by selling drugs. "It ends up being a positive message," says Community Outreach Director Will Underwood. "In the end he realizes that easy money isn't always the best kind." The play, which took 18 of the boys three months to write, was a positive experience. "It really blew them away to find out they have these talents they didn't know about," says Underwood. The men will offer several free performances at a local community center.

Defining Manhood

Adamore believes there needs to be a shift in society's attitudes and focus toward young fathers. "Society needs to redefine manhood," he says. "Being a man is not proven by the number of women you've slept with or how much gold you're wearing." Sex sells today, observes Adamore. "When I was small, the good guy always got the girl on television. Now the good guy gets the girl...and then they show it!" In many TV shows, there used to be an insinuation of romance and passion. Today on a normal evening of sitcoms and dramas, romance has been replaced by a brief date and then sex.

The Young Fathers Program came out of a community's need, explains Adamore."The boys needed something positive. I have had kids in here really upset. They haven't ever tried to pay attention in school before, and now they're trying. Yet their friends just make fun of them. Who can be positive in a situation like that?" It's the same for those men trying to be responsible for their children: "Nobody is telling them they're doing a good job. They're getting no credit from the media, from their friends or from their community."

They come for support, explains Underwood. "We help them set small, realistic weekly goals," he explains. "We don't just tell them to be good fathers." Each person's individual needs must be determined and met. "If we don't listen to those needs we'll alienate them," Underwood insists. Giving 10 compliments to their children over a week or doing well on a test in school are examples of goals Underwood helps the young fathers set. These small goals will help the young men reach their larger goals of becoming better fathers and becoming educated.

Besides the group sessions, one-on-one meetings are conducted with the young men about once a week or whenever they drop in, says Underwood. He wears a beeper in order to be available to his participants at all times.

Success is measured in three steps, Underwood explains: "First, success is judged by how well the guys are accomplishing the small goals within the established time frame, then, as time passes, by measuring their growth by their commitment to their educational and career goals." The bottom line of success, he says, is "quality time spent with their children on a regular basis."

Another aspect of the program is to discourage the possibility of fatherhood among other unmarried young men in the neighborhood. "These guys, while excellent role models for other teen dads, are also excellent examples for sexually active boys of why they should wait to become a father," says Adamore. Several of the boys who attend regularly aren't fathers. With the encouragement of the others, they don't plan on becoming dads for a long time.

Need for Parent Training

Being a father is a man's most important job in life, insists Adamore. "High schools teach biology and chemistry," he observes. "How many biologists or chemists do you think they're turning out versus parents?" He advocates high-school parenting classes. To those who fear that such classes would promote early parenthood, Adamore retorts, "If a kid's interested in being a chemist, you're training him or her to do that in the future, not right out of school." Training teens to have good parenting skills, in fact, will discourage them from becoming parents too early, he insists, "because they would better understand the reality of the responsibility and lifetime commitment involved."

As representatives of the Young Fathers Program, Frank Adamore and Will Underwood speak at high schools about once a week. They show a thought-provoking video they created with the help of a local TV station about a role-reversal between an expectant teen mother and father. In this show, the boy becomes pregnant! "The father is pregnant and scared and tries to talk to the mother," explains Adamore. But she's not interested. She tells him things like, "How do I know it's mine?" and "I hope you don't expect me to get involved!" The video makes the point well: "It helps a guy to realize that if his girlfriend gets pregnant it's not just her problem."

Though these prevention programs are too late for the men involved in the Young Fathers Program, most of the young fathers don't have any more out-of-wedlock children once they're involved with the group.

Once a month, the group sponsors an educational activity, usually for the whole family. Last year, the Young Fathers traveled to the Indianapolis Children's Museum, Cincinnati's OmniMax Theater, and a science and industry museum in the state capital. They went skiing, joined the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., and attended several plays. "We want to broaden their horizons," says Adamore. "Family interaction is the support system these guys need. It seems society no longer buys into the proverb, 'It takes a whole village to raise a child.'"

In 1994, more than half a million women under the age of 20 gave birth in the United States. Ken Canfield of the National Center for Responsible Fathers notes that, whether the young father is a physical presence in his child's life or not, he will have an influence over his child's future relationships, self-esteem and identity. Statistics show that without responsible fathers the fatherless cycle will continue into future generations.

Other young father programs around the nation offer mentoring programs and job training; all are aimed at bringing young fathers deeper into the parental role. "We help young fathers be responsible fathers," says Ed McCain, codirector of Dads Advising Dads (DADS) in Maryland. "We're trying to break the stereotype of irresponsible fathers. The stereotype has been perpetuated for so long that all the young men in the community have started to believe it. The stereotypes have become an excuse for not taking responsibility for their actions."

Back in Cincinnati, Frank Adamore agrees. Through the intervention of the Young Fathers Program, he tries to help these young men be the best men they can be: aware, responsible, involved fathers with goals for themselves and their families.

Kara Rhodes is a reporter for The Downtowner newspaper in Cincinnati. She is a 1996 graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati and was St. Anthony Messenger's intern last spring.

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