Unready for children, young men confront demands of fatherhood Program helps them turn lives around, take responsibility

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Myron Turner never met his father. So when the West Baltimore youth became a father himself -- four times before his 19th birthday -- he didn't know what to do.

He was addicted to sniffing glue. He ran with a westside street gang. He made thin attempts at being a good father. He lived a lifestyle that defied his nickname, "Luck."

Strung out with almost nowhere to turn, Mr. Turner, still 19, got some advice about where to get help last year from the mother of one of his children. Today, he's enrolled in a curriculum at the Healthy Start men's center in West Baltimore, where he's learning to be a better father and stronger person with dreams of completing high school and then, maybe, college.

"I'm coming up in life," he says. "One thing I'm working on now is my attitude."

With stories like Mr. Turner's, the leaders of a small grass roots men's group in Baltimore hope to show other teen fathers that they also can turn their lives around and become providers instead of estranged parents.

It's part of a national movement that some experts say could stem a social erosion that has hurt and in some cases ruined many families. From small, ethnic groups to academic papers, male bonding sessions and even cyberspace, paternal "training" courses and a push to honor fatherhood itself are in vogue.

"There's been a fathering deficit," says Ken Canfield, president of the five-year-old National Center for Fathering in Shawnee Mission, Kan. "Never before have we had so many derelict dads -- we've got a huge, bad dad syndrome. But there's a new trend toward responsible, healthy and engaged fathering, and I can't think of anything that would strengthen the social fabric of America more."

Mr. Canfield, a father of five, holds national seminars on the importance of fathering, reaching audiences that total 15,000 mostly middle class dads every year.

In Baltimore, the practice is being duplicated on a much smaller scale and to a different, younger and less affluent audience.

A Head Start Male Involvement Project in the 3800 block of Edmondson Ave. aims to forge family bonds. A recent report to the Bar Association of Baltimore City encouraged two-parent families and grass-roots parenthood classes and support groups.

And on the city's east and west sides, there's the Healthy Start program that provides weekly meetings with groups of young fathers like Mr. Turner. The seminars begin with a prayer and end after the dads pour out personal stories of bonds they have achieved and relationships they hope to forge with their children.

Mr. Turner's life is rapidly changing. He recently met his father at the funeral of a relative. He is learning through the seminars how to juggle four children with four different mothers, buying Pampers for one child one week and clothes and shoes for another the next.

"By me having four kids all by different mothers, it's hard on me so I got to make a circle to get to each one of them," he says. But I try to do the best I can. I always manage to find a way. God is on my side."

He admits that he never intended to have children in his teens, but said, "When you are getting high, sometimes your mind is telling you to do things you really don't want to do. When I was getting high, I was crazy."

Another young man, 23-year-old Chris Topher, said the fatherhood seminars held each Tuesday in the 600 block of N. Carey St. have enlightened him and increased his parental confidence.

"You need something that you can turn to -- a program that can help you put your best foot forward in facing this fatherhood thing," says Mr. Topher, father of two toddlers. "Most of the people in this group, we weren't ready to be fathers. Others need someone to talk to, and we come to the group for different reasons."

Joseph Jones, who heads the Healthy Start men's program, says the young men here often find themselves at an emotional loss when they father children. On average, most have a ninth-grade education and have few if any job skills and even fewer employment opportunities. Problems with drugs and poverty are a way of life, he lamented.

"This population of people is so mired in this hellhole, they are not going to change overnight," Mr. Jones says. "It would take us in general six months to work with these guys on buying into what we're doing here. They need some guidance and a different lifestyle. The average fathers who come here lack critical logic, reasoning and basic skills."

Many of those at the Healthy Start men's center are living in a cycle that Mr. Canfield has identified as prime targets for fatherhood training: absentee fathers who themselves were fatherless sons. Most were raised by single mothers, and the lack of a male role model while growing up has had a negative impact on their lives, Mr. Jones says.

"If you can't define your relationship with your father, then you can't define yourself," Mr. Topher says. "Your father is your conscience, he's the way you think and see life from birth until you get on your own. However you see your father, that's how you see life."

Mr. Jones gives credit to single mothers. But he said the problems facing many young urban fathers are so serious that the discipline and guidance of one parent is simply not enough.

"In Baltimore, there are so many young men who if they had a male role model around who would grab them by the collar and say 'boy, you will not do this, you will go to school -- you will do your homework,' " Mr. Jones says. "Women are extremely good nurturers. But you need a father's presence to help stabilize these guys."

Nationally, the fatherhood movement is gaining momentum.

There's a "FatherNet" national bulletin board on the Internet. The problems have become a topic of concern for Vice President Al Gore, who led a national forum on the issue last year. And sociologists in other large U.S. cities such as Minneapolis and Houston are probing the effects of fatherlessness on the current generation of young males.

Closer to home, Mr. Jones has taken his theories and stories to Washington seeking help. He recently met with members of President Clinton's Cabinet to testify about the importance of continued federal funding for fatherhood programs, currently in limbo because of the budget-conscious Congress.

He advocates keeping a local lead-abatement program that has provided job training for many in his Healthy Start group. The program allows the fathers to earn $4.25 per hour and learn skills that could lead to future careers. That, he said, has had a major impact on the fathers' self-confidence while they learn how to test for lead paint and then remove it -- all while working to provide for their families for the first time.

"There are so many things like hurt and pain going on in these guys who appear to the world to have nothing bothering them," Mr. Jones says. "But they require some type of intervention to deal with their hurt and their pain.

"The young men on the street corners need to see their peers become successful in mainstream America," he says. "A lot of people tend to want to write this whole group of guys off, but if we write the dad off, what does that say about the development of the infant or the young child?"

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