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Part II: Fatherhood Initiative Offers Hope To Portsmouth Dads

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By Rosaland Tyler

Associate Editor

New Journal and Guide

LaMar Johnson smiles easily when he talks about being a father.

But before Johnson enrolled in the Fatherhood Mentoring Program sponsored by the Portsmouth Department of Social Services, he had little reason to smile. He needed a job. He needed to learn how to parent his four children who had three different mothers. Enrolling in the program that pairs mentors with young fathers, Johnson said a funny thing happened. He learned how to connect the dots.

“Now my future looks bright,” said Johnson, 35, who enrolled in a two-year apprenticeship program for elevator mechanics in January. “You come out with training.”

“You could have described me as lost before I started the program,” said Johnson whose four children by three different women are ages 1 to 18.

“I had the wrong perception of what I expected out of myself, others, and society,” said Johnson who has been married for five years to his second wife. “I felt like I was owed something. Being in the program gave me a different perspective on life.”

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Johnson is one of about two dozen men who will graduate from the program on June 2 in a ceremony that will be held from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. in the Portsmouth Social Services Building located at 1701 High St. The keynote speaker will be New York Sportswriter Albert Coqueran whose work has appeared in many publications including Baseball Weekly, New York Daily News, and Referee Magazine.

The 10-week program has served about 75 fathers a year since it was launched about five years ago. Fathers work with two mentors: Jimmy Howard and the Rev. Clinton McCray.

Weekly meetings attract new students, graduates who return, and several volunteers including Ford Motor Co. retiree George Williams, U.S. Marine veteran Anthony Fountes, and Department of Social Services retiree Carl McDuffey.

“Our curriculum teaches them how to become better men and fathers,” said Dr. Tyrone Davis, program manager. “We help them find jobs and offer other supportive services. We want them to talk freely and open up. They help each other by sharing information and insight.”

“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.”

But, think about it. Can a few hours of dialogue, a couple of mentors, and a handful of accomplished volunteers reverse a disturbing trend that started in the 1960’s and 1970’s? Specifically, the retreat from marriage and fatherhood hit minority and poor communities the hardest.

If you look at census records, you see how the national marriage rate which was 65 percent in 1920, climbed to a high of 72.2 percent in 1960. From 2000 and 2009, the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 who married dropped 10 percentage points, from 55 percent to 45 percent, according to Pew Research Center records.

In 2013, marriage rates for Americans 18 and older hit a bottom of 50.3 percent, down from 50.5 percent in 2012. Currently, the number of young adults who have never been married exceeds those who are married.

So this means when a father transforms his life by attending the fatherhood training program in Portsmouth, he helps to reverse the trend. Like a snowball can lose momentum and break to pieces as it streaks downhill, fathers with jobs, who provide financial-and-emotional support to their children can fragmentize delinquency, high-school dropout rates, or teenage pregnancy–the issues children from single-parent homes experience disproportionately.

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Johnson proved an absent father can reappear, produce a ripple effect, and transform many lives. Thanks to a couple of mentors and a handful of seasoned volunteers, Johnson is enrolled in a two-year apprenticeship program that includes a modest stipend.

“What I love about the (fatherhood) program is the openess,” Johnson said. “You can discuss anything. They are there for you. They give you a number you can call. They help you with the issues you have coming in.”

“One of the first things they tell you is being able to take care of your family makes you a man,” Johnson said. “I would like to thank Dr. Davis and everyone who helped me change my life around.”

And this may explain why many of the fathers graduate but return to sort things out in weekly meetings. For example, Kerry Spencer received his certificate five years ago but still attends weekly meetings. “I was one of the first ones to attend,” said Spencer, 46, a barber. “Now I am married and raising my grand kids.”

“The program was helpful in many ways,” Spencer said. “From time to time, Dr. Davis will ask me to come through to speak to the guys who are there. Guys tell me they have benefited from the program.”

Spencer who described his younger years as “reckless” said he wants to share his insight. “I have a past,” he acknowledged. “These men are there seeking help. They need to know everybody is not against them. There is help if they want it.”

“The program taught me many lessons including how to handle money, lessons about business, and gave me information about things that men should know,” Spencer said. “It is a great program. It seems to be growing. It is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.”

“The program offers fathers a stage or a platform to open up,” Spencer said. “We are private when it comes to our emotions. Our pride often won’t let us talk about us. In our meetings men just open up. They want to excel and graduate.”

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