Learning To Put
The shopping mall on 89th street is an odd place for a city agency, especially one providing the only service of it’s kind the city has. Nevertheless, nestled among a Rainbows, a supermarket, a pizza place and Chinese food stalls is the small office of the Fatherhood First Initiative, a program started to teach teenage fathers skills they need to become a positive part and equal partner in their children’s lives.
David Jones, a longtime city service worker, started the project in 1997 after noticing a gaping hole in the roster of programs the city offers inner city parents. Specifically, New York City was lacking any program aimed at teaching fathers.
A father of four boys, Jones set out to fill the slot. The initiative in federally funded and only has Jones and one part time outreach worker. However, there is no question the effect and lasting impression made on the young men in the program vastly outstrips the agency’s size.
"It becomes an extended family." Jones explains. "I get phone calls from fathers all over, keeping me up to date on how people are doing, how the kids are." Former students of the program often come back to volunteer and help to teach the next crop of teen dads by explaining their successes and their mistakes.
The average age of the programs students is 18 or 19, but they get many who are younger, and have recently opened their doors to local dads who have problems or specific questions. "There is not one manual to teach you how to be a good dad, and it’s a struggle, but there are rewards." said Jones
As for why this project is based in the Rockaways, the answer is in another hole in city services spotted by Jones. He was mystified by the way such a seemingly valuable beach community could be so run down. For him, Fatherhood First is a step toward fixing both.
The building behind the deceptively simple front door is a kid’s playground. It is also the home of the Early Headstart Center, and several of the rooms on the first floor contain toys and food for the toddlers who run around them, watched over by the teachers assistants who work there. There are classrooms as well, both for the Fatherhood program and the GED program.
Carmen Ayala, the Education Coordinator for the whole building, explains that they divide the program into child goals, development goals and parent goals. This explains why career, financial and educational advice is a big part of their program. If the dads who go to it cannot handle their own goals and lives, they cannot handle their children’s, at least not as well as they might like to.
"It was counselors and coaches who were really there for me, and I want to be there for young people, cause I feel they are misunderstood a lot of the time" Jones said. But it sounds like he understands them just fine. With a little luck, maybe they will bring a similar understanding to their kids and others.