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.
Energy in the Inner City
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
"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."
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."
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
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."
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
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.
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.
for Parent Training
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.
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
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.