The Hard Knock That Won't Stop

Determined to make a better life for themselves and their children, students at the Fathers' Support Center make a go of parenthood in the 'hood

Craig Ransom raps on a pretend door. Come in, says Charles Barnes Jr., a large man partial to print shirts. Ransom shuffles in. He leads with a handshake. Brief, but firm. Very good. Don't make that mistake of the unprofessional soul-brother handshake, Barnes will later caution. Barnes sits, but Ransom still stands. He hasn't been asked to take a seat. He addresses this point of etiquette: "May I sit, or do you prefer I stand?"

Propriety doesn't necessarily come easy for Ransom, who has spent the last 10 of his 29 years with felons who were far more familiar with Miss January than Miss Manners. But here he is, aspiring applicant for a pretend position in the shipping department, trying to impress a pretend human-resources specialist with politeness and humility.

The journey, for Craig Ransom, has been a long and arduous one from the teeming North Side neighborhood known as "the Bud," fraught with trouble and temptation, to the confines of this classroom in a building near the projects, where wayward and disillusioned fathers come with hopes of turning their lives around. Ransom, a brawny, soft-spoken man, is determined to hunker down into the straight life -- regular job, permanent address, maybe a car. It may sound uncool, especially for a former "playa," but it works for Ransom, who needs the stability to provide emotionally and financially for Taronda, his 9-year-old daughter. The Fathers' Support Center St. Louis is offering Ransom the tools he needs to make it happen.

"I knew what kind of father I wanted to be to my daughter," Craig Ransom (with daughter Taronda) says. "Problem was, I didn't really know how to be a father."
Jennifer Silverbergphoto by Jennifer Silverbergpho
"I knew what kind of father I wanted to be to my daughter," Craig Ransom (with daughter Taronda) says. "Problem was, I didn't really know how to be a father."
"I knew what kind of father I wanted to be to my daughter," Craig Ransom (with daughter Taronda) says. "Problem was, I didn't really know how to be a father."
Jennifer Silverberg
"I knew what kind of father I wanted to be to my daughter," Craig Ransom (with daughter Taronda) says. "Problem was, I didn't really know how to be a father."

Ransom and Barnes are the focus of a small group of guys sitting around them, observant, notepads at the ready. This week, in December 1999, week No. 5 in the six-week program, is Job Readiness Week, and, accordingly, the fellows are attired in their finest duds. In previous days, they have gone through résumé-writing and job applications; today is the mock job interview. Landing a good job is key for these young men, all of them fathers, all of them estranged to some degree from their children. These fellow dads -- Craig Ransom, Ronald Ransom (Craig's brother), Edward Scott, Charles Thompson, Paul Webb, Leo Taylor-Bey and Edwin Furlow -- have given themselves a name: Fathers from the Hard Knock That Won't Stop.

After the mock interview, the guys conduct a peer review while Barnes, program facilitator and an alumnus of the program, makes a list of do's and don'ts on the blackboard: Keep answers direct and short. Always have an answer. "We don't accept 'I don't know' from our children," says Barnes. "Why should an employer accept it from us?"

A debate ensues over whether it is all right to wear earrings to a job interview. The consensus seems to be that it is OK, if they're not too flashy. Barnes says it is not OK. "Dress conservatively," he adds. "Try to coordinate, at least." Other points: Make eye contact, but don't stare. Use good posture. Smile occasionally. Avoid slang. Thompson, a peer, notes that Ransom lapsed into slang during the interview: "When Mr. Barnes asked him if he was incarcerated, he said, 'I caught a case when I was 19.'" That's right, he did, the others agree.

"How can we say that?" someone wonders aloud.

"I got put away when I was 19," a class member offers.

"Nah, just be straight," responds another. "Say, 'I committed a crime when I was 19.'"

"We all from the streets," says a fourth. "We got to live two different lives. We got to know when to turn it off, the street slang."

"It's hard!" admits Thompson.

"Think about this," says Barnes. "When they ask that question, say, 'Yes, I was. I made a mistake, and I paid for it, and now I'm trying to turn my life around.' See? You turn that negative into a positive."

Conjuring euphemisms for "jailbird" is only a tiny tile in the overall mosaic of goals set by the Fathers' Support Center (FSC), a fledgling organization that provides parenting and personal-development skills to noncustodial fathers. Located at the Guardian Angel Settlement Association in the Clinton-Peabody public-housing complex south of downtown, the center offers an intensive six-week classroom session that includes seminars titled "The Hazards of Being a Real Man," "Condom Talk," "Maintaining Your Cool" and "Paying Child Support" and culminates in a graduation. After graduation, class members' progress is followed for up to two years by FSC staff. There are job referrals, meetings with mentors they have chosen, individual and family counseling if they so wish. Essentially, the center is there for them -- to open doors, if needed.

The program has received enthusiastic praise from John Robertson and Nancy Vosler, professors at Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work, who wrote in their "Report on the Pilot Phase of the Fathers' Support Center St. Louis": "The program has recruited and retained some of the most alienated, unattached non-custodial fathers in St. Louis. The program has gotten these men working and paying child support. The fathers are becoming actively involved in the lives of their children."

Ultimately, the program is all about children. Children -- and the second chance to establish a bond with them that these young and often down-and-out parents receive when they enroll in the program. Executive director Halbert Sullivan, who holds a master's degree in social work from Washington University, understands that there is no quick fix for these dissipated family units -- the fathers, their children, the mothers of these children -- though he is willing to start from the ground up. His working paradigm, which forms the basic tenet of the program, is simple, actually: By increasing the involvement of the fathers, the most fragile families can be strengthened, which in turn improves outcomes for the children.

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