Boot camp makes men of deadbeat dads

"They were real skeptical of anybody wanting to do something for them," she says. "But Halbert could relate to them." Only a handful of dads enrolled in the first six-week session, and Sullivan was the only employee.

Soon, a small white nun from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul approached Sullivan to ask if she could volunteer as a parenting coach.

"I didn't want no women around," Sullivan says. "But I couldn't say no, because we were getting money from the Daughters of Charity." He agreed to let her try it.

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.

BANG! On a recent May morning, Sister Carol Schumer is slamming her hand on the table in front of Bill Russell, a member of Class No. 89.

"Bill!" she shrieks, jolting everyone awake in the FSC's basement classroom at the Prince Hall Family Support Center, a hospital-turned-government-building in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis. "I wanted you to paint my car blue, but you painted it pink! Bill, you really screwed up!" She rattles off more mock complaints then calmly asks that he repeat them back to her. He grins. He can't remember.

"Gentlemen," she explains, "people don't hear us when we're yelling. It's wasted air. It's like James Brown said: 'You talkin' loud, but you ain't sayin' nothin'!"

Schumer, 65, looks nothing like her students: She's five-foot-two dressed in a blouse and a skirt bearing the colors of the Daughters of Charity, navy blue and white. But she never wears a nun's habit. "I'm white, I'm a woman and I have no children," she says, "I don't need to set myself apart like that."

She's not the only facilitator at the FSC: St. Louis Community Credit Union employees give a course on financial literacy and why, for example, payday lending is a bad idea. A woman from St. Louis County Department of Health lectures on the perils of fast food. Instructors from Computer Village impart basic skills in Microsoft Word and Excel. Schumer's specialty for the past fifteen years has been parenting. And today's lesson is about discipline.

She tries to keep it lively, but the mood darkens briefly as each participant describes how he was disciplined as a kid. Many recount beatings.

Extension cords, broom handles, canes and shoes: Schumer has heard it all. But the goal on this morning is not to make peace with the past. Rather, it is to renounce abuse so that it won't pass on to future generations, which goes back to the quote she'd displayed on the overhead projector at the outset of class: "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."

(She also loves putting cartoons on the overhead to emphasize her points; after one Dennis the Menace strip, she complains: "You guys don't even laugh at my jokes!")

If a child refuses to eat broccoli, Schumer teaches, don't punish him. Give him two choices you can live with: The child can either eat broccoli and go play outside or not eat any and stay put.

"Give your child some power," she says.

She then projects an image of two kids smeared with paint next to an empty paint bucket.

"It's not fair to yell at these children," she insists in her high, wiry voice. "Because children can't help it. The child is an explorer. Anything within their reach is fair game. It's not the child's problem. An adult left that paint there."

"Sister Carol," one participant mutters, "that's a hard pill to swallow right there."

After class, Schumer says she endeavors to remind her class how it feels to be a child.

"Many of them have not had a pleasant childhood," she observes. "They weren't allowed to be children, children who didn't have to worry and who were taken care of and were supported. That's one of the reasons why stickers go over so well."

Yes — she awards her dads with stickers for arriving on time: smiley faces, flags, monkeys and, as they grow wiser, owls.

The nun's stickers may seem goofy and her folksy demeanor an odd fit for a classroom full of men raised on the streets, but several members of Class No. 89 privately say that her class was the most illuminating part of the program.

"I had it out with my daughter the other day," recalls one recent graduate. "And I used some of Sister Carol's techniques: You say two or three encouraging things, and it helps get your point across. Use eye contact, use an affectionate gesture. Some guys will say, 'Ah, that's bullshit, that don't work.' But if you're open-minded and objective, believe it or not, it does."

"Man, this is jacked up!" fumes Charles Barnes Jr., facilitator of the daily circle discussion called "What's New" that takes place every morning at 8 a.m. in the basement classroom at Prince Hall. The clock now says 8:05 a.m. on the very last day of the program. Two members of Class No. 89 have trickled in late and outside of the required dress code for the sixth and final week: a nice shirt, tie, slacks and dress shoes.

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