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

If Thompson is sincere, it is a lesson to us all. Though the moral qualities of tolerance, patience and humility are woefully lacking in society at large, they are viewed as a requisite for success in the Fathers' Support Center program. Nor is it easy embracing these virtues, summoning one's inner Gandhi at will. In fact, many of the participants are goaded and badgered toward this higher state of fatherhood, at which they may arrive emotionally bruised but nonetheless better for the experience.

"It's very difficult to change a person's mindset, to get them moving in a new direction," says Sullivan. "I, for one, don't think that change is going to happen if you're just coddling them and patting them on the back. I did a lot of research at Washington University, and traditionally the way we approach our social services and delivery of services has been that nice, gentle approach, and it has not worked. So we take another approach."

Some call it the boot-camp approach. The first two weeks are the toughest, with Sullivan and Barnes playing the thankless role of drill instructor. Nothing gets by them. Throughout the six weeks, the men's $75-a-week stipend is docked if they are late or leave early. They are fined if they curse or show disrespect to the staff. As in real-life boot camp, not all the recruits make it through the program. During this session, for instance, two participants didn't make it to graduation. Sullivan, a believer in confidentiality, won't say exactly what they did to fail muster, but it's a good bet it had to do with attitudinal adjustment -- or lack thereof. "You come here because you want to come here, stay because you want to stay," he says. "I don't accept their reasons why they can't do something. I've got tunnel vision. Here you do what's right." Not that Sullivan and Barnes are giving up on these guys. They will have the chance to get "recycled." If they are serious about completing the program, they have to start anew.

"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."

"What's unique about this program," says Barnes, "is the combination of compassion and disciplinary action. We have to project the reality of life situations that these men will face. We can't sugarcoat it. And some do come here with a lot of garbage," he continues. "The world is wrong, and they're right. They don't want to open up. The attitude is 'I'm a man, I can handle it.' Our response is 'Well, if you were handling it, brother, you probably wouldn't be in the situation you're in, so please let someone help you.'"

The way it works, according to Sullivan, is that as the individual's behavior starts to change, the group dynamic starts to change, positive reinforcement sets in and confidence and self-esteem accrue, influencing the program as a whole. The guys start to think of themselves not as disparate characters out for themselves but as a cohesive unit built on fellowship. It worked for Edward Scott, the youngest dad in the group. Scott joined the program after his brother handed him a flier. His take on the dynamics of the group? "It's a good bond now," he says. "Wasn't like that in the beginning. Everybody here's been on the streets. They've experienced so much, at first it was hard to interact. One guy'd give his opinion and someone else would get upset. Finally we all agree to disagree. It's a cool group -- I like it."

Scott, personable with a penchant for nice clothes, is another FSC success story. He, too, had run afoul of the law and was on probation from ages 16-21. But now, at 22, that's all behind him, and he's hungry for education. His postgraduation choice is not to work but to be a full-time student. Meanwhile, he sees his infant daughter three to four times a week, more frequently than before he began the fatherhood program.

"I'm more in her life now," Scott says. "We've started to establish a bond. Even my relationship with my baby's mother has improved -- better communication, no little petty arguments. We can be around each other. I used to not take responsibility," he offers. "I had problems with my father, my family, my girlfriend, my baby's mother, and then I looked at the one common denominator in there, and it was me. I thought, 'All these people couldn't be wrong.' I had to be the one. I had to step outside myself and take a good look at myself. I wasn't being very appreciative; I wasn't showing any gratitude."

The graduating class seems to have had scattered success. Edward Scott, whose goal was to climb the academic ladder rung by rung until he reached the top, with a Ph.D. after his name, had planned to start St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. However, his financial aid fell through, and of late he has been looking for work. Charles Thompson went through truck-driving school and became an over-the-road driver. He sees his son when he can.

Between them, the Ransoms have gone through a series of jobs. Craig now works full-time, with benefits, at Paul Flum Ideas Inc., a marketing/manufacturing company. After Universal Printing, Ronald worked at Nellcor Puritan Bennett, a respirator manufacturer, and the Loan Co., as a mortgage broker. Currently he's a laborer for the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

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