This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 11, 2008 - For 17 years, Lawrence Davis says, he did everything he thought a father was supposed to do.
He kept a roof over his children's heads; he fed them. He paid for their school, their clothes and their toys.
"I always told myself I wasn't like those other fathers you hear about. I had a good job; I had two houses. I had my own truck.
"But it was an illusion."
Last month, the 35-year-old divorced father of four called his children around him and told them that he was ashamed of the man he had become. He was changing, he told them. Today. Right now.
There would be no more drugs, no more anger directed at his ex-wife and no more excuses.
On Sunday, Davis will celebrate what he calls "my first Father's Day," thanks in large part to a group called the Fathers' Support Center- - a 10-year-old project dedicated to helping children by helping their fathers.
"I knew I couldn't give up," Davis said. "My children, they were my motivation.
"Fathers have to lead by example. If I don't want my children to do drugs, I can't do drugs. If I want my children to put on a seatbelt, I have to put on a seatbelt.
"I tell my kids, 'I'm going to get my college degree; what are you going to do?' And they say, 'Oh, we're going to get ours, too.'
"You have to challenge them. You have to set the bar high for them."
Focus on the Children
Halbert Sullivan, chief executive officer of Fathers' Support Center, has been with the organization since its beginning. An admitted "ex con and recovering drug addict," Sullivan was a social worker immersed in research involving the effect of fatherless homes on children when he was asked to take charge of the project. He said the group started with $750 -- and now has a budget of $1.2 million.
Since then, the center -- based in the Prince Hall Family Support Center at 411 N. Newstead -- has graduated 64 classes of fathers. Davis will be in the 65th graduating class on Wednesday, June 18. The 66th six-week class will begin 19 days later. There is no charge for the classes.
The center's goals are simple: to prepare fathers to become "financially and emotionally involved and spiritually sensitive parents," to help fathers get the skills needed for steady employment and to help both parents develop skills and behaviors that "foster the well-being of their children." The center even accepts men who are not yet fathers, figuring that they will be at some point int their lives.
While the center's work is largely with parents, it is not the men who are the ultimate targets of the work.
"Our focus is totally on the children," Sullivan says. "We can spend a ton of money on youth programming, and we need youth programming. But if the parents around them are not acting responsibly, then how will the children know how to act responsibly?"
Sullivan knows many of the chilling statistics by heart:
- 71 percent of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes
- 85 percent of young men in prisons grew up in fatherless homes
- 82 percent of teen-age girls who get pregnant come from fatherless homes
- 75 percent of all adolescent patients in chemical-abuse centers come from fatherless homes.
Reginald Slaughter, who graduated with the center's 16th class and now runs the classes, says of the statistics, "There is nothing wrong with our children; there's something wrong with us."
The center, he says, works with the men "one day at a time."
'We Don't Do Jobs'
Earlier this week, members of class No. 65 sat in a circle in a basement classroom at the Prince Hall Family Support Center talking about their weekends. They spoke of barbecues, get-togethers, picnics, outings and just quiet time with family. Almost all of the men wore white shirts and neckties.
"How you going to get a job with your pants falling down off your butt?" Sullivan told them. "Or it's like, 'Here I come with my hat on backward, my T-shirt hanging down to the floor and saying, 'What's up, dog?'
"You all know what society says about you; they see you as not worth anything."
Last week, the center celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a banquet in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark downtown.
This coming Saturday -- June 14 -- many from the center will take part in the 12th Annual Fatherhood Walk and Rally in Forest Park. The event is set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Officials with the center call the six-week programs a "boot camp" for fatherhood. Of the current class, 20 of the 34 men who started have dropped out.
The dropout rate is not unusual, Sullivan said.
Many men, he said, come into the program "confused about what we do.
"They'll come here looking for jobs or looking for some kind of intervention in their child support payments.
"We don't do jobs; we don't intervene in child support. We don't fix you, but we will give you information so that you can fix you."
Financial support comes from a variety of sources, including the United Way of Greater St. Louis, the Missouri Children's Trust Fund, Area Resources for Community and Human Services (ARCHS) and the St. Louis Mental Health Board.
Up in Smoke
Three years ago this month -- on June 24, 2005 -- Davis was standing near the gate of the Praxair Distribution facility when the flammable gas cylinders at the plant began exploding, sending fireballs and metal roaring into the air. The flames could be seen for miles. The plant never reopened and Davis' $50,000-a-year supervisor's job went up in the same smoke.
He now works as a $9.50-an-hour, part-time employee of Federal Express.
Despite his job situation, he is convinced that he is a better father now. His marijuana use had become almost debilitating ("it was as if I was sleeping most of the time") before he gave it up.
"Daddy," he says his daughter told him when he stopped smoking, "we knew you loved us, but every time you got high, you didn't want to do anything.' "
Now, he said, he takes his children everywhere. "We went to the Art Museum for the first time; they loved it. They said we have to go back."
He dreams of finishing college and one day starting his own DVD and CD distribution company.
Davis' mother, Janice, said she believes the center has helped her son come face to face with his responsibilities, both as a man and as a father. "Sometimes, if things don't go just right, young men can end up in a pity party," she said.
She said the center has shaken him out of that.
On Tuesday, she said, he came to her office and she barely recognized him. "He was wearing a shirt and tie and slacks and I thought to myself, I have not seen him looking that nice and professional in a long, long time."
When he told her that he was going to enroll in college, she was flabbergasted.
"It was the first time I heard him talk like that," she said.
He said he doesn't know what his children -- three boys and a girl -- have planned for Father's Day. But he knows it will be special.
"To me, this is my first Father's Day," he says. "And I'm not just saying that; I mean it. I've had to man-up; I've had to apologize for what I've done.
"Those drugs were taking away everything; they were taking my babies' time.
"Finally, I understand what it means to be a father."