In His Eyes

D.C. Fatherhood Initiative Program Helps to Create Responsible Fathers

She couldn’t stay still. She sat in the wooden chair at the dinner table. Then she hopped up. She latched on and hugged her father from behind as he prepared fried chicken wingettes and salad.

“My eyes are named James Hall, because I have eyes like my daddy,” said 6-year-old Ja’Mya Hall.

James and Ja’Mya Hall live in a cozy apartment in Southeast Washington. Hall is 23, and he is a single father.

Hall became a father at the age of 17, while he was attending Anacostia High School in Southeast.

He was with Ja’Mya’s mom for a year and three months, and then they parted ways. He had only spent a month away from Ja’Mya when he found out that she had been placed in child protective services. He immediately filed for custody of Ja’Mya.

Ja’Mya’s mother attempted to gain custody, he said, but she did not follow through. He said she called once after Ja’Mya turned two. Hall hasn’t spoken to the mother of his child since.

Hall was trying to move out of his mother’s home. He and his mother “were not getting along.” He began staying with a friend. Hall eventually found out about the D.C. Fatherhood Initiative Program, which at the time was located at a United Planning Organization community service center in Northwest.

“I just did it,” Hall said, of completing the program. “As a teen, you don’t wanna think you need help.” The program helped him through school, financial issues, problems with his mother and housing.

‘A Wonderful Father’

Teneysa Goodwin was the Program Assistant when Hall was in the Fatherhood Initiative. She said he found his “direction and focused on the things that he needed to do.”

“He really appreciated the support,” Goodwin said. “He finished school, and now he works in the same field.” 

Hall is the Community Engagement Liaison and the Citywide Representative for the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative Inc. He tries to prevent substance abuse in the city, helps families in Ward 8 become self-sufficient, works with youth, creates progress reports, prepares agendas and completes a plethora of other tasks.

“He is giving back what was given to him,” Goodwin said. “If we were to judge the program on his success, then it was successful. He is a wonderful father. His mother and him have come to a medium for Ja’Mya, to make sure she has a comfortable life.”

Hall graduated from the Fatherhood Initiative Program in 2004 and the following year he graduated from Ballou Senior High School in Southeast.

Today, the Fatherhood Initiative Program has evolved in many ways but the goals are essentially the same. Its mission is to help foster healthy relationships through life skills training, building parenting skills, job readiness, child care assistance, educational assistance, financial assistance, housing assistance, transportation for job interviews, referrals for apprenticeship programs, substance and domestic abuse assistance and various other forms of counseling.

In addition, there are family bonding trips on the weekend and cookouts. It is an eight-week program.

The D.C. Fatherhood Initiative is a five-year-old program funded by the Department of Human Resources, which supplied a $50,000 grant toward the program.

The program, initially for fathers, was changed to incorporate mothers after the National Organization for Women and the Legal Momentum filed a class action complaint in 2007 with the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services alleging “sex discrimination in responsible fatherhood programs.”

Weekly meetings for fathers are held at the UPO Petey Greene Community Service Center  at 2907 Martin Luther King Ave. S.E. every Tuesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and for mothers every Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the UPO Anacostia Community Service Center.

A Better Understanding of Fatherhood

Last Tuesday, three men sat across from Charles Pyatt, the Fatherhood Initiative Program Case Manager, and talked about why they were there and what they hope to get out of the program.

One man said he came to get a better understanding of fatherhood. A second man said the court referred him to the program but nonetheless he said he wants to gain custody of his child, “be a better person and become a better father.”

During the meeting, the men participated in a check-in session, in which they discussed the issues of their personal lives since the last time they met.

Pyatt shared information on employment opportunities and urged the men to apply. One of the men, aged 43, who recently received his high school diploma, offered information on how the other men could do the same.

“If a brother has something going on, we try to help each other out,” Pyatt said, adding that the information shared at the meeting is confidential.

They talked about the importance of communication with employers, spouses, partners and children.

Pyatt was thorough with the men. He said he focuses on the inner person to change the way the men may think. He picked their brain on issues like parenting, relationships, baby-momma drama and the future of their children with special emphasis on their sons.

Pyatt has been the case manager for the Fatherhood Initiative Program since 2005. His goal is to help the men find employment, secure housing and become reliable fathers.

“Regardless of what’s going on with the mother, they’re our children too,” Pyatt said. “We have to be responsible fathers.”

Pyatt hopes to stop the cycle that can lead fatherless sons to prison or a life of crime.

According to the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown University, women head 68 percent of households in Ward 8.

Since he has been working with the Fatherhood Initiative, Pyatt said he sees the importance of having a father. Pyatt never met his father and he did not have a good relationship with his stepfather. He grew up in the projects, had a criminal background and was a recovering addict. He had been shot and stabbed 10 times.

“The Lord is using me to help men with children,” Pyatt said.

He experienced issues in displaying affection, he said, but “once you learn to love yourself you can learn to love your child.” Pyatt has five daughters of his own.

‘Take One Day at a Time’

Pyatt goes into the different neighborhoods in Ward 8 to recruit people into the program. He hopes to work with 50 fathers this year and have 50 fathers complete the program, form a relationship with their children and find employment.

In 2008, 54 fathers were enrolled into the Fatherhood Initiative program but only 26 fathers completed it.

After participants complete the program, there is a ceremony in which a recent graduate may come and speak. Family members are present, and certificates are distributed. Participants also receive movie passes for the family or a gift card.

“It’s just phenomenal how that program works,” said Ricky Jackson, 50, a former graduate. Jackson has five stepchildren. Since he completed the program, he was able to get a job and reunite with his family. He works at Georgetown University as a caterer.

Jackson kept in touch with Pyatt and those who participated in the program with him. He said some of the men established relationships with their children and others did not.

“Don’t give up,” Pyatt said. “Take one day at a time.”

Jackson continues to volunteer with the program and refers people all of the time.

“It really has helped us to better ourselves in society as black men. You can get in this program and teach brothers and sisters how to live and that there is more to do than destroy each other and loved ones,” Jackson said. “I’m always gonna be in the family of the fatherhood program.”