They greet one another with smiles, hugs, and brotherly salutes. There is a camaraderie and a strong sense of pride among the men who attended The Fatherhood Solution Conference just hours before Father's Day.
They have a purpose to be loving parents and positive role models to their children, and the second annual conference of Project Fatherhood, sponsored by the Children's Institute, Inc. (CII), is part of their support system.
"Project Fatherhood is truly the oxygen, a breath of fresh air in an environment where a father is trying to understand how to parent his children," says Steven Jackson, father of seven who has been in the program for five years after his wife passed away. "I have gained more focus through the Project. I have always been very serious about parenting and involvement in my children's lives, but it has helped me to fine tune my mission. It's the best program out there to help fathers."
Project Fatherhood addresses the problem of absentee fathers, a major social issue affecting the healthy development of a significant number of children. Dr. Hershel K. Swinger, CII's Senior Vice President of Clinical Services, created Project Fatherhood in 1996 to increase the involvement of disadvantaged fathers in the lives and upbringing of their children, especially those adrift in the child welfare system. The free program which has served 7,000 fathers and nearly 4,000 children across Los Angeles County, is also open to fathers of all ages, races and educational backgrounds. With funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, CII is now providing small grants to community-based agencies to replicate the federally designated model program throughout Los Angeles.
"These men care for their children, but there were a lot of reasons for them not to get involved. says Dr. Swinger, a nationally recognized trainer and expert in the areas of cultural aspects of intra-familial violence, community violence, and drug abuse. "Sometimes they are afraid to get involved because they owe so much child support. Also, some are not confident to be good parents, or they fear their child will turn out like them. It's almost an unconscious reason that keeps them from being involved."
Empathy, not excuses is a shared view by Judge Greg Mathis, a nationally recognized courtroom television personality who was one of the Fatherhood Conference keynote speakers. " I believe that many of our fathers want to do the right thing. They weren't born to be absentee fathers. They want to work, but they can't get a job."
In his speech to the conference attendees which included fathers, professionals in health, juvenile justice, education and social work, Mathis advocates a need for strong fathers, because most of the young people who come before him on the bench are fatherless. He read the latest grim statistics: Seventy one percent of all high school students who come from fatherless homes, drop out of school. Seventy percent of the juveniles in state operated institutions, eighty-five percent of all youth that are in prison, and seventy-two percent of adolescent murderers grew up in fatherless homes.
"Some of the primary causes we see in fatherless communities are based on economic deprivation because we have a society that has placed the man at the head of the household and he must provide," says Mathis. "So you have a man who has produced children and he's at home with the family but yet he cannot provide for that family, and so he internalizes that pain and emasculation because society is based on how much you can provide. Being unable to provide, he walks out. He punks out and he leaves his family, and he tries to drown out the pain with drugs, alcohol, a life of self destruction, community destruction, street hustling and economic related crimes. All of which provides a negative and destructive example to our young men who are growing up. This is a vicious cycle in our society where the unemployment rate creates a sense of abandonment, and rejection."
Despite the reasons for men not fathering their children, Mathis who understands the causes, says blaming society is the usual excuses for a fatherless society. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the judge tells fathers to "Man-up" by taking action and supporting not only their children, but creating and joining organizations like the Project Fatherhood that address their concerns, and champions their causes for creating jobs, and better educational systems. He says those men who came before them in the 1960s and 1970s created organizations to fight against injustices in society, and they should use their energies to do the same instead of participating in self and community destruction.
Mathis strongly believes absentee fathers, especially those with court records, can change, because he was able to turn his life around. The judge was a gang member who dropped out of school, and was in and out of jail, but he overcame these adversities to become the youngest judge in the history of the state of Michigan.
The 2nd Annual Fatherhood Conference fulfilled the exact proactive mission Mathis advocates, by bringing together a wide range of experts to speak on such topics as; integrating fatherhood programs in culturally diverse communities; working with teen, ex-gang and incarcerated fathers; the role of the church in delivering fatherhood services; and overcoming the barriers facing homeless fathers.
Sean Berry, father of four attending the conference, says that the support system among staff and other fathers is priceless in the program. "Besides my children, Project Fatherhood is the best thing that has ever happened to me. On Wednesdays, its a time for me to vent my frustrations, and get opinions from other fathers who are going through the same things I'm going through. You get hooked, and you stay. If you miss a class, you feel like you missed something. I don't feel like my week is complete. It's like going to church. The program means a lot to me. It renews my spirit."
Project Fatherhood's primary goal is for children to grow up safe and healthy and to become productive adults. Several fathers at the conference said that mission is what they admire most about the program. "The most significant relationship in your life is with your children," says Dr. Swinger. "If you have a good relationship with your children, then everything else in your life will fall into place."
Janet Alston Jackson
WHAT IS PROJECT FATHERHOOD?
To address the problem of absentee fathers, Dr. Hershel Swinger created Project Fatherhood SM at the Children's Institute, Inc. in 1996 to re-engage low-income fathers, particularly in urban settings, in the care and upbringing of their children. Through therapy, support, parenting education and other services, fathers learn to be more loving, responsible parents and active participants in their children's lives.
The program is 10 to 12 months long, with many fathers choosing to return during periods of crisis in their lives. Project Fatherhood helps fathers to become better parents through:
Â * Individual and family counseling
Â * Group support
Â * Significant others group
Â * Therapeutic activities for children
Â * Preventing child abuse and neglect
Â * Helping fathers to make healthier decisions in relationships
Â * Connects fathers who need extensive employment assistance or vocational training
Â to one of Los Angeles County's Work Source/One Stop Centers
Visit the new website with videos, newsletter, events and resources: www.ProjectFatherhood.org
For more information, Contact:
Project Fatherhood SM
Children's Institute, Inc.
711 S. New Hampshire Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Phone: (213) 385-5100
Fax: (213) 383-1820