By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Countless studies pigeonhole challenged fathers between the ages of 25 to 54 into unflattering categories such as dead-beat dad, loser, or slacker; but the Fatherhood-Mentoring Program has taught dozens of fathers the sky is limit.
Like a turtle can flip on its shell after copulation and struggle to flip over, the fathers in the program are in self-correct mode. They will graduate from the Fatherhood-Mentoring Program on June 1 from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. in The Portsmouth Department of Social Services Building at 1701 High St.
Often weighed down by a lack of training, having children by multiple mothers, and a criminal background, these fathers bring a 2014 New York Times poll sharply into focus. This poll found that 85 percent of prime-age men without jobs are like turtles that flipped onto their backs. To get back on their feet, these men must struggle.
“The community is working to help them become better fathers and better citizens,” said Dr. Tyrone Davis, program coordinator. “What we are seeing are people who are becoming competent and skilled.”
“We tell them people are not just going to give you a job,” Davis said. “Our sessions are called No Judgment Zones because we want them to talk freely. We want them to open up about a lot of different topics,” Davis said.
The program covers weighty issues including how to obtain and accumulate wealth, how to rethink assumptions, how to launch successful relationships with the mother as well as the child.
“We help them find jobs,” Davis said. “We assign them a mentor. They share information and insight. They realize they are not the only ones going through these things. They realize they can change the landscape.”
“We believe if you change a man’s way of thinking, you will change his lifestyle,” Davis said. “If a man can feel good about himself and his future, he will automatically become a better father. When he leaves our program he will understand what produces self-esteem and self-worth.”
During the fatherhood mentoring program in Portsmouth, about 25 men attend three, 10-week sessions that help them self-correct. Whether they effortlessly self-correct like the flat-shelled turtle uses its long muscular neck to flip off its back. Or they need firm consistent help to execute the flip like the tortoise because it has shorter legs, and a shorter neck.
The long-term effects of remaining flat on one’s back are very high. Like male turtles sometimes fall backwards after copulation and soon die of starvation if they don’t self-correct. These fathers are struggling to find a job with benefits and flexible hours.
The problem is there is a connection between the retreat from marriage and fatherhood, and unemployment or underemployment.
In fact, a recent American Enterprise Institute for Family Studies (AEIFS) report estimated that 37 percent of the decline in male employment since 1979 could be explained by the retreat from marriage and fatherhood.
This means the solution is in the ongoing struggle. But the non-employed are more likely to be African American (14 percent versus 10 percent) or Hispanic (20 percent versus 15 percent), according to a 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
To compound the struggle, some of these fathers share traits that hamper a job search. “Many are ex-offenders (50 percent or more),” Davis said. “Many are them never had fathers (over 50 percent).”
“There must be a transformation,” Davis said. “The man who comes into this program cannot leave the same man. I keep records of all of our sessions. Some men have said if it were not for these workshops they would have been dead.”
“Some of the fathers graduate and return for other sessions (about 25 percent),” Davis said. “They come back because they realize learning is a lifelong process and being a parent is difficult. They want to continue to learn.”
One example is Morris Elliott, 40, who finished the program about three years ago and continues to return. He has emceed events, met with new groups of fathers, and still participates in weekly sessions. Elliott said the program has helped him self-correct.
In fact, the program has helped to the point that Elliott boarded a bus on May 14, rode to Kansas City, and attended his oldest daughter’s high-school graduation. “I can’t put a specific time on when I started looking differently at my relationships with my children,” he said. “Maybe it was about five years ago in the program. Guys there put things in a different light.”
“I listened to them describe the correct way to do it in the program,” Elliott said. “A lot of this program is about changing the way your think. At age 18, the world says you are an adult and ready for the world. Actually, you are not.”
“This program opened my eyes and made me grow wiser and understand why I moved the way I did,” Elliott said. “Older men share their wisdom with those who want to get it right.”
Elliott has worked in fast foods since 1999. He has fathered five children by two women. His children range from age 20 to 8. He is not married to either mother. His oldest son graduated from high school in 2012.
Another father in the program is Raymond Houde, age 37, who recently earned his bachelor’s degree in occupational and technical studies at Old Dominion University. Houde has two children by two different mothers and a stepdaughter. He is not married.
“When I enrolled in the fatherhood program I already knew what I wanted to be,” Houde said. “But if you had asked me that question 10 years ago I would have said I did not know. I knew I had a long life to live. I couldn’t keep on the way I was.”
Although Houde dropped out of high school at age 15 after he was expelled for truancy, he earned his GED at age 17. He graduated with honors from Tidewater Community College in 2011. In his early 20s, he helped install fiber optics around the country. He returned to Virginia and began doing electrical work.
Houde explained why he graduated from the program several years ago but still attends the meetings.
“I met men I aspired to be like,” Houde said. “We have a lot of mentors there like Dr. Davis, who has a great career and one who works with the Department of Labor. They are where I am trying to go. I know where I want to go but I am just trying to get there.”
Part Two—Modern Day Fathers Struggling With Weighty Issues