By Lindsay Toler
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Thompson can identify with several others in the class who, like him, have had problems with the law. A rap for receiving stolen property, an unregistered gun he says his grandmother gave him for security on a return trip from California -- "it was stolen in 1972, before I was even born!" -- got him five years' probation. This was an obstacle for the clean-cut high-school graduate who, before his arrest, had worked as an auto mechanic and a baker. About the time the class started, he was $1,500 in arrears for child support and paying it off incrementally through a job as a driver with a school-bus company. Since graduation, Thompson has attended Franklin Truck Driving School and hopes to be pulling in good money while getting his life together. His only concern, he confides, is that extended periods on the road will keep him too long from his son, now 2 years old.
The fatherless household is a hot topic with motivated social workers such as Halbert Sullivan and Donnell Whitfield. "The fact that there are so few positive male role models in their developing environment does affect how these children perceive life," says Sullivan. "So a young man growing up in the projects or the inner-city ghettos, be he black or white, just doesn't get the opportunity to see the role of a strong, responsible male. This program started to change that. Not only do we encourage responsible fatherhood, but responsible citizenship. We want our men to be beacons into their own community."
Whitfield is a retired St. Louis city police captain and current executive director of Prince Hall Family Support Center, one of the social agencies with which FSC works. "Once you remove men from the household and the community, you have real poverty," he says, "the kind that can't be cured by money." Whitfield has read the reports from sources as diverse as the Texas Department of Corrections to the National Report on Teenage Pregnancy, all of which emphasize, to Whitfield, the vital connection between the committed father and the stable, functional family. Thumbing through the dry pages of various studies, he will tell you that 90 percent of homeless and runaway children come from homes where the father is absent or not involved. Ditto for 71 percent of high-school dropouts and 82 percent of pregnant teenage girls. "Is that any surprise?" wonders Whitfield. "When there's no father in the home to validate their daughter, tell her she's pretty and smart, guess what? Someone else is going to come along and do it."
Another entry in Whitfield's array of statistics, courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau, is that 65 percent of African-American families have a woman as the head of the household. "What does this mean to the boys in those households? " asks Whitfield. "Where do they find, in their immediate environment, that significant male role model, that pillar of strength? In the church on Sunday? Probably not. In the schools? Well, the majority of grade-school teachers, especially in the early grades, are primarily female. So where do they get that male role model? That's why programs like the ones Halbert and I run are so important. We are trying with all our resources and all our hearts to try to re-engage fathers in the lives of their children."
Walk out the door of the Guardian Angel Settlement and just beyond the small parking lot, on the periphery of the Clinton-Peabody housing project, are a battery of Dumpsters. On one of them someone has scrawled in white spray paint, "Mob Life Bettah." It's ironic that this message should be thrust in the faces of those trying to rise above that. Charles Thompson calls the slogan "a lot of nonsense," seeing it as reminder of how far the group has distanced itself from such sentiments.
To Sullivan, it comes a little closer to home. Before he reached out to places like North County, he went to all those nearby apartments and tried to recruit people. He talked to the guys hanging out in the parking lots with the abandoned cars that you could sit in to take a hit off a crack pipe. He extended his hand, and very few of them took it. But the altruistic social-worker spirit prevails.
"One of the reasons we picked this neighborhood is to try to effect change in those areas identified as most problematic," says Sullivan. "Even within that complex, there are people who want to do something different in their lives -- they just don't know how to do different. You know, you can wake up any day and say I'm going to go find a job and change my life, but when they step outside the house, there are so many negative influences that will prevent them from following through with that. We want to be there to try to get in the way of those negatives and help them stay on that path of trying to change their lives. Some are just caught up in their environments and they can't break out. We're there to try to help them break out and to show them how you can be successful in changing your life."