Joe Jones remembers what it was like to grow up fatherless. His dad left when he was nine. For the past two decades, the Baltimore native has supported local fathers so that other children can be spared that experience.
In the early 1990s, Jones worked for the Baltimore City Health Department, where he directed pregnant women to prenatal care and drug-treatment programs. Often, he recalls, “the guys who got them pregnant were around, and they wanted to be involved.” Supporting those fathers became his passion. Jones persuaded his supervisors that to stem infant health problems and other bad out- comes, expectant dads had to be involved. He spearheaded a pilot project to teach city staff about the legal, housing, and employ- ment issues facing these men. After several years, Jones spun off the fatherhood program, establishing it as an independent nonprofit called the Center for Urban Families.
As Jones developed the center’s pro- gramming, he found a shortage of ideas in the field regarding how to help men who had stumbled in their lives. “Our belief is that men should be fathers, protectors, go to work or war, and if they fall down, they should get up by their bootstraps. The notion that men are human and can fall short is something society has never embraced beyond child support and incar- ceration. We have tried to change the notion of the nurturing value of men, as contribu- tors to their families or communities.”
He sought out child psychologists, pediatricians, and other experts for advice on teaching fathers about responsibility. Those findings informed the curriculum for the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Proj- ect, which helps fathers build better family relationships. Other CF UF programs help participants complete their GEDs or receive job training.
One of these, the Baltimore chapter of the international program STRIVE, teaches “attitudinal skills” needed to be successful in the workforce. Half of CFUF’s clients have been involved with the justice system, and as Jones points out, “the kind of skills that help you survive in jail, like a rough exterior” are different from “the skills you need on the job: punctu- ality, attitude, all the things you need to be a team player.” He compares the rigor- ous four-week, full-time program to boot camp: “At the end of boot camp, you’re a soldier. In this case, we want them to be soldiers prepared for the world of work.”
The program has helped match nearly 700 graduates with jobs in the last two years. Jones is proud that the organization has suc- cessfully moved its graduates into entry-level jobs at an average of $10-$11 per hour, sub- stantially more than Maryland’s $7.25 per hour minimum wage.
CFUF began with a staff of eight and has grown to 38 full-time employees, some of whom graduated from its programs. In 2009, it completed construction on a new 32,000- foot complex that includes training space. Its $4.5 million annual budget is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and others. It has also begun cultivating more individual donors. Some CFUF alumni contribute as they are able; for every $1 graduates give, a matching donor gives $5. Those funds are then invested in alumni services.
Marcus Dixon, the father of ten- and three-year-old sons, recalls being at CF UF in 2010 to job hunt, having “an arrogant attitude that I didn’t really need their help; I just needed them to show me where the jobs were.”
Seeing a STRIVE graduation firsthand transformed his outlook. A man a generation older with a master’s degree remarked that STRIVE “was better than any college course he ever had or took. I couldn’t comprehend that, ” Dixon says. “I thought if you were a college graduate you were signed and set. But to hear someone involved say otherwise completely caught my attention. And that’s when the ball really started to roll.”
Dixon enrolled in STRIVE and joined CFUF’s fatherhood training program. He went to a weekly support group with other men in the same position, eager to learn how to play a positive role in their children’s lives. Dixon had not previously encountered a program before that would assist him in his efforts to support and be with his sons, rather than dismiss him for the ways that he had let them down.
“If you don’t see your kids and don’t pro- vide for them, you’re a deadbeat father,” he says. “But you’re not a deadbeat father if you take the steps to see your children.”With the help of CF UF, Dixon got a job and a schol- arship to train as a pharmacy technician. “I made a promise to myself that I was going to do everything I needed to do to better myself and make a future for my children.”