Boot camp makes men of deadbeat dads

He still managed to make honor roll in high school, but instead of graduating, Sullivan says, he ended up in the penitentiary — or, as he calls it, the "institute of higher learning for criminals." He got out in 1972, but by 1975, found himself locked up again for selling drugs — this time in the notorious Attica Correctional Facility.

"It was a very dark, gloomy, ugly situation," he recalls of the prison, which had been rocked by riots three years earlier. "It was so dark in that prison, we said you had to ship the sunshine up in there." His attorney had his charges reduced on appeal in 1979, and within months he was back on the streets.

Upon release Sullivan fell into his old habits. He'd already tasted the joys of pot, pills and cough syrup. Now he moved onto coke and crack. "That crack cocaine," he says today, "is the ruination of creation."

Fathers’ Support Center staff: Founder Halbert Sullivan, managing director Cheri Tillis, and facilitators Sister Carol Schumer and Charles Barnes Jr.
Jennifer Silverberg
Fathers’ Support Center staff: Founder Halbert Sullivan, managing director Cheri Tillis, and facilitators Sister Carol Schumer and Charles Barnes Jr.
Nathaniel Lewis of class No. 89 addresses his fellow FSC graduates on May 31.
Alexis Hitt
Nathaniel Lewis of class No. 89 addresses his fellow FSC graduates on May 31.

At the age of 30 he vowed to shake his new habit and for a short while stayed with his mother, who had relocated to St. Louis. "But when I left New York, you know who I brought with me?" he says. "I brought me with me."

Soon he was hitting the pipe again, back in Rochester, living the "horrors of addiction" — squatting in vacant buildings, panhandling, rarely bathing. Eventually he drifted anew to St. Louis. In July 1993, Sullivan says he awoke on a park bench outside Beaumont High School on the city's north side with no idea of how he arrived there. In the depths of depression, he checked into rehab.

Thanks to the twelve-step program of Narcotics Anonymous, he says, he's been clean ever since. "No relapses, no beer, no wine, no nothing."

The day after leaving rehab, Sullivan says, he enrolled for classes at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. He earned his associate's degree in May 1995, then his bachelor's degree from Fontbonne University in 1996, then entered the master's program at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

Meanwhile, two white women — Doris Stoehner, vice president of nursing at Christian Hospital and Sue Breslauer of the Junior League — were trying to tackle the local problem of teen pregnancy.

"There were seemingly a lot of programs for pregnant teen girls," recalls Stoehner, "but there was nothing addressing the male issue."

They invited Wallace McLaughlin from Indianapolis to speak at a November 1996 conference about his own fatherhood service center. His ideas wowed them so much, they resolved to start their own program. All they needed was a leader. They made inquiries to a Wash. U. professor, who introduced them to Sullivan.

Stoehner remembers meeting the graduate student at the social-work building on campus.

"Sue and I walked out of there and said, 'Did we just find our executive director?'" she says. "We knew right away we had to have Halbert."

So they asked him to come on board. He refused.

"They didn't have no mission, no methods, no strategies," Sullivan remembers. "I said, 'All you got is a good idea. You got any money?' They said, 'No, we ain't got no money.' Lord have mercy." With a criminal history, Sullivan felt lucky to have just landed a job as a social worker in St. Louis Public Schools and decided to stay put.

One of his first assignments, though, altered his thinking. A fifteen-year-old student kept getting into fights. Sullivan soon learned that the young man was being mocked for having body odor, wearing the same clothes every day and not having the designer brands popular in 1996: Nike, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger. So Sullivan helped get him some new clothes. He also connected him with tutors. Still, the kid often missed school on Mondays and some Tuesdays.

When Sullivan drove out to the boy's home to investigate, he found his mother (and other adults) drinking forties and smoking pot and crack in the family's two-family flat. Then he noticed the woman's other children milling around, and it all clicked: The mother would disappear on a bender each weekend then fail to return Monday morning. The student had to babysit his siblings instead of showing up for class.

"I realized that someone needed to be working with these parents," he says. He returned to Stoehner and Breslauer and agreed to direct the Fathers' Support Center. With the help of Jeffrey Johnson, a social-work professor at Wash. U., they came up with a six-week curriculum that includes sessions such as: "Anger Clues/Maintaining Your Cool," "Relationship Roadblocks" and "Redefining Manhood."

Two grants rolled in: $20,000 from United Way and $30,000 from the Joseph H. & Florence A. Roblee Foundation, a St. Louis-based charity that funds socially minded projects. But even with that, Sullivan didn't get a paycheck for the first two months. He had to live off revenue from his side business: hustling costume jewelry at a booth in Soulard Farmers' Market. When the FSC finally received the grant money, he put away his "can of earrings" for good.

The center gained 501(c)(3) status in December 1997, then opened for business the following May inside the Guardian Angel Settlement Association of the Clinton-Peabody public-housing complex, south of downtown. Stoehner remembers grilling hot dogs in the projects to lure male recruits.

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