Clifton Bowens, 18, a former gang member with a bad attitude and strong dislike of school, had twice been incarcerated for car theft when he learned last year that his girlfriend was pregnant.
He listened intently the other night as a former high school dropout, who had been arrested 13 times and fathered three sons by age 21, told how he got his act together and became a Baltimore city councilman, U.S. congressman and the president of the NAACP.
Bowens, who with 29 other fathers heard Kweisi Mfume at New Shiloh Family Life Center in West Baltimore, said the civil rights leader's remarks late Thursday "let me know out of all the stuff I go through, don't give up."
So far, he hasn't.
Bowens is on track to graduate from Lake Clifton High School next year, works part-time as a cook at an Inner Harbor hotel and supports his daughter, Ty'Ana Daniels, 4 months.
Chances are, he wouldn't have given his daughter financial support - much less have been there for her - had he not enrolled in Young Fathers/Responsible Fathers. The six-month program for males ages 14 to 45 teaches parent skills and offers vocational and career training, job placement assistance, family counseling and GED courses. Graduation exercises were held Thursday at New Shiloh.
"When I first got to the program, I didn't have a job," Bowens said. "I didn't know much about taking care of kids. I had an attitude about going to school and having a baby coming."
Bowens said he had doubts about fitting in. "I felt as though I couldn't relate with them [other fathers], because they were on a totally different stage, so much older," he said. "But they let me express my feelings, and that helps a lot."
Bowens, who received the personal growth award from Young Fathers, is the youngest in this year's 76-member class. His girlfriend, Te'KiaDaniels, said she has noticed positive changes in him.
"For a minute there, he was procrastinating going out there and getting a job," said Te'Kia, 16. "But now, he's a great father to her. He shows his love every day. He does take responsibility."
Bowens said he has learned to control his anger and improve his attitude in the past six months.
Kevin George, 38, the oldest graduate, said Young Fathers has helped him realize his family - particularly his daughter, Monique, 12 - comes first. "Before, I had some trouble in my life with being a steady father and participating in her activities, and I didn't have a lot of patience," George said. "Now, I'm part of the PTA, I volunteer and I helped develop the computer labs at her school."
Unlike Bowens, George was married and older when his daughter was born. Still, he benefited from the program, sponsored by the Department of Social Services and the Urban League.
Various social service agencies, graduates and the courts refer participants to the program, said Sue Fitzsimmons, manager of public relations for the Baltimore DSS. The men are interviewed and told what to expect of the program, which is funded through the State Department of Human Resources and costs them nothing. The men meet at several city locations, including 1900 N. Howard St., 2990 S. Hanover St. and the city jail. Some enroll while incarcerated there.
Monique is glad her father stuck with the program.
"Before, he didn't have as much patience as he has now," she said. "Now, he takes more time out to tell me right from wrong, what I should and shouldn't do, instead of going off. And he's more confident in what he does."
Since 1994, nearly 2,000 men have participated in the program. Most graduate, though some quit when they land jobs, said Robin Cherry, Bowens' aunt who works with Young Fathers.
Mfume said the program instills pride in participants.
"While some of our problems are singularly unique, none of them has to be permanent," Mfume said. "You didn't just happen to get here. You didn't get lucky. It's not how you begin in life. It's how you end up."