Christopher Gibson still remembers the sting he felt last month when a Baltimore social worker told him he wasn't a real parent but merely a "proxy" for his 6-month-old daughter.
He even remembers the date -- June 1 -- when it happened. He had applied for welfare certificates for baby food and formula, and was at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School to pick them up. The social worker turned him away, telling him to get the child's mother, recalls Mr. Gibson of Forest Park in West Baltimore.
"I was treated like I was nothing, like I was nobody," said Mr. Gibson, 24, who is not married to the child's mother. "It irritates me because people don't recognize the father as being a part of the child's life."
But Mr. Gibson and other young fathers in Baltimore are getting a chance to shatter such stereotypes through a new program designed to teach parenting skills.
Young Fathers/Responsible Fathers draws on the resources of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, the Baltimore Urban League and the Laurence G. Paquin School for Expectant Teen-age Mothers to help fathers in their teens and 20s.
The six-month program is designed to combat the many problems -- including unemployment and a lack of education -- that can keep young men from fulfilling their responsibilities as fathers, say program officials at the Paquin school and the Department of Social Services.
The program also provides an opportunity for young fathers "to be around a real live man who is a father, someone who looks like them," said Dr. Rosetta Stith, director of the Paquin school. The three program coordinators are fathers, and at least one was a teen-age father.
Friday morning, six of the 19 fathers enrolled in the program attended a session on parenting at the Paquin school. The young men seemed to have a rapport with coordinators Sheridan Stanley and Marvin McFadden.
As the discussion ranged from discipline techniques to unconditional love, the young men and the coordinators talked about their own mistakes and successes as fathers.
Men enrolled in the program spend three days or nights a week in such parenting sessions.
Two days a week, they receive help in completing their education and finding jobs or vocational training. The Urban League will use videos and mock interviews to help the fathers prepare for the job market.
Charles Turner, 26, of Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore, who enrolled in the program Wednesday, wants to get his high school diploma and find a job.
Mr. Turner completed the 10th grade and said he has been unemployed for a year. He has three children, ages 9, 8 and 1.
"I can't tell them it's important to work, and they see me standing on the corner," Mr. Turner said.
Troy Poole said he used to think fatherhood meant buying diapers and bottles here and there. "I just thought it was a obligation, but I wasn't committed to bringing up the children," he said.
But because of the program, Mr. Poole understands that there is more to fathering than buying baby supplies. At 27, he has a 3-month-old son, and daughters ages 1 and 4.
Now living with his children and their 25-year-old mother, Mr. Poole is no longer the "Mr. Swinging Bachelor" he said he was when he found out he would be a father.
"The respect I received before was false," Mr. Poole said of his life on the streets. "Now I can tell it's wholehearted."
Any young father who is willing to learn is eligible for the program. Those interested can call the Department of Social Services at 361-2139.