West Baltimore family center welcomes dads bicycling for fatherhood

"Fatherhood is something I think is at risk ... It's something we can't lose hold of in our society."

When Antonio Martin's 11-year-old daughter found a racy website two years ago, the East Baltimore dad nearly erupted.

Instead, he remembered lessons from the Center for Urban Families: Be patient, breathe, talk it through.

The center now stands to receive a $1,000 donation from bicyclists in the Dads Honor Ride. They're riding three weeks — from Boston to Chicago, by way of Baltimore — and visiting organizations, such as the family center in Mondawmin, that support fathers.

On Sunday, Martin and other fathers welcomed five of the men bicycling.

"Fatherhood is something I think is at risk," said Kevin Heerdt, a board member at the center who pedaled with the dads through Baltimore. "It's something we can't lose hold of in our society."

About 25 million American children live in fatherless households, said Joe Jones, president of the Center for Urban Families. In Baltimore, he said, fathers are absent from two-to-three in five families.

Furthermore, he said, about 4,000 parents who don't live with their children in Sandtown-Winchester, Park Heights and Mondawmin owe more than $26 million in child support.

"We got so many of these guys and they don't even know their own dads," Jones said. "The cycle repeats itself."

About 1,000 men a year participate in the center's fatherhood classes. They learn patience, and how to listen and communicate with a child's mother.

"Sometimes the best communication is saying nothing ... let her have her way," said Carde Cornish, a 25-year-old photographer from Druid Heights.

He has also seen that his 2-year-old boy will soak up any lesson, even how to hold a camera and shoot from a stroller.

"It's crazy how much they learn," Cornish said.

President Barack Obama visited the center three years ago to observe a fatherhood class, Jones said. The center also helps about 400 fathers a year find work.

The cyclists visited about a week into the second annual ride by the 21st Century Dads Foundation, which works to encourage and support fatherhood. They plan to finish on Father's Day in Chicago.

Along the way, each rider will donate to nonprofits in the cities they visit.

David Hirsch, of Chicago, founded the nonprofit.

He sometimes pauses when bicycling past a man with a child. He presents these dads a custom fatherhood coin engraved with words that convey a subtle challenge: "Thanks for being a great dad."

In Baltimore, the bicyclists stopped for hugs and photos. They planned to stay at the Inner Harbor overnight before continuing their 1,500-mile ride.

Martin was there to thank them.

The 40-year-old dad wandered into the center years ago.

"I wanted to see what they were all about," he said.

He returned for group discussions, and heard other fathers talk about patience and communication, how to have a role in a child's life — how to be a dad.

So when his daughter was 11 and caught watching that website, he didn't hit the wall.

He didn't shout.

He did take away her laptop.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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