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

FSC graduates six to eight dads a session, and with the recent opening of a second site at St. Jane Catholic Community Center in North County, add another eight dads. Critics may reasonably say that churning out a mere 16 caring, responsible fathers every few months isn't going to make a dent in the larger issues of poverty, lack of skills, promiscuity sans birth control and dependence on welfare. Not when, as of March 1999, according the Missouri Division of Family Services, 12,852 families in the city of St. Louis were receiving cash benefits in the form of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. This figure expands to 27,378 children on the welfare rolls, offspring who by and large live in single-parent households in which, we may surmise, the father is but a shadowy figure. Or perhaps he is there but, as Donnell Whitfield maintains, in a sort of here-today-gone-tomorrow underground capacity.

But to social-work professor Nancy Vosler, even a small number of stand-up dads is better than none: "Granted, there are lots and lots of families who need this program, but for the ones who are fortunate to have a father enrolled, this is a small window of hope, because if they can get a stable job, get involved or re-involved with their kids, pay child support and/or co-parent their children, then the kids have half a chance. Now, they're still going to be in poverty or right on the edge of poverty, but likely to have a more stable life and not be so cut off from everything. And that's what's so exciting to me about this program. I'm at a point where I'm grateful for small blessings, and this program seems to be working for this handful of fathers that every few months are going through, getting jobs and getting connected to their children."

The posters on the walls of the windowless classroom offer diversion for those who seek it. "Fathers Make a Difference" reads one. Another shows a picture of a darling little girl, about 3, with the caption "She's counting on both of you. Establish paternity." Still another throws out a challenge: "Thinking About Becoming a Parent? Get an Education. Get a Job. Get Married. Then Have a Child."

"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."

In the middle of the room, to the rapt audience, Charles Barnes drives home a point about self-control and the Big Picture. "Your girlfriend, the mother of your baby, you can't control either one of these females. What you can control is you. We have a tendency to argue with that female, and it's not necessary. Let it go. I call it 'kissing.' Just let it go. Are you trying to make a point, or are you trying to see your child?"

This homily is met with a chorus of righteous rumblings. Learning patience and tolerance and, conversely, leaving Neanderthal behaviors behind represents a huge step forward for many of the guys. Testimonials are readily elicited.

"When we came here, we were below bottom," says Ronald Ransom, speaking for himself and Craig. "We had to jump to touch bottom. Most of us didn't know how to do things but one way, and that way was a kind of fly-off-the-handle way -- part of what Mr. Barnes calls 'that stinkin' thinkin' -- which got us in trouble. I know I've taken a load off since I got here. I can cope better, especially with my ex, and now," he admits, "I'm not as likely to punch a wall because she's acting stupid."

The "ex" and mother of Ron and Tamara is Francine Davis, 30, a work-study student in the communications department at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley. Both she and Ronald say that, until recently, they had not spoken for two years, possibly three. And although Davis doesn't know too much about the class -- "He told me it teaches you how to be a better father" -- she can tell something is at work.

"I have noticed a tremendous change, considering before. He comes to get the kids more often. He spends more time with them, and he's started to help out with clothes, a few outfits here and there." Davis notes an important distinction in her and Ronald's new era of cooperation -- namely, that they don't engage in friendly chitchat. "We don't really communicate about anything personal between us," she says, "only as far as the kids are concerned."

Now that the lines of communication are reopened, Ronald has had to face parenting dilemmas. On re-entering the picture, for example, he didn't like what he heard -- that his children were below grade level in reading and that his son had been held back a grade. "I felt bad; I wasn't keeping up with them," he admits. "She felt it wasn't that big a deal. 'Everybody flunks once in their life' was what she said. I could've put it all on her, but I saw this situation as part my fault. I said, 'We got to do better. Not just her, but me too. First thing," says Ronald, "I went out and got some First Reader books."

Every father who enrolls in the multifaceted program gets a healthy dose of life lessons, and each fellow finds something to latch onto. Like Ronald Ransom, Charles Thompson feels that learning "how to better communicate with my child's mother" was the best thing he got from the program. "For example," he says, "at first we couldn't talk on the phone to each other. She would say something where I know she's trying to piss me off, and I would just blow up. Since I've been in the program, we have not had an argument, because I've learned how to humble myself and show her a different side. I don't even let it get to me no more. It takes two to argue, and if I don't participate, it's not an argument."

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