By JOEY REISTROFFER
SPARTANBURG — “We have over 20 million children in our country who are living without fathers.” That bothers Joe Jones, director of Baltimore City Head Start and an adviser to Vice President Al Gore.
So he is doing something about it. He is bringing fathers back into the family fold with his pioneer program in Maryland.
Twenty million is a staggering number, but it goes much deeper than that for Jones. It gets personal. He grew up in public housing, and one day his father packed up his duffel bag and “got in a Thunderbird, never to return.”
The experience shattered young Jones, and “two years later I began to inject heroin and cocaine.” He said he spent the next 17 years on the streets drifting. It wasn’t until “I met this guy … named God” that Jones found a purpose and a direction in life.
“That situation with my dad and mom is what drives me to do this,” he said.
Jones stressed that a father is crucial, stabilizing force in the life of his children. Without fathers, “little kids are left out there to fend for themselves.”
That is why Jones came down to South Carolina at the end of March to help the Sisters of Charity Foundation develop its fatherhood program.
The Sisters of Charity Foundation, a nonprofit organization with an endowment of $84.5 million, plans to give out five $120,000 grants this fall for projects across South Carolina that promote responsible fatherhood. These grants are renewable for three years.
When he began his operation in Baltimore in 1990, Jones said there was very little information available on negligent fathers. He told those seeking grants from the Sisters of Charity that he started from scratch and felt his way through on gut instinct. A grant from the Bush administration’s Healthy Start initiative helped, he said. Still, information was minimal.
“You may not have the experience,” he told the crowd of 50 who gathered in Spartanburg last week for a seminar on negligent fatherhood and all its problems. “But you probably have the skills.”
It takes sincerity and commitment to reach out to these men who have turned their backs on their families, Jones said. “If you are only in it for the money … you are in the wrong game. These guys … will see through the phoniness.”
In Baltimore, Jones said, he started small. His goal was to reach 60 men.
First, he had to get the men to come in. That meant hitting the pavement, talking to them one-on-one, spreading the word, breaking through the macho and finally getting them to take those baby steps that foster change,” Jones said.
The Baltimore director said it was crucial to know where these men had been in order to help them figure out where they want to go. Their average age, he said, is 24. They have about a ninth-grade education, and 80 percent of the men in his program are unemployed. “Most had no meaningful relationship with their own fathers.”
Jones said he had to create an environment where these men felt safe. Only then would they start discussing what it meant to be a man, he said. Those talks soon turned to morals, values and beliefs.
Next, he said, he tried to get the men to attend prenatal appointments with expectant mothers. He worked with clinics in the area to make the atmosphere hospitable for the fathers.
That was tough, but it was important. “We believe that male parenting starts as soon after conception as possible,” he said.
“We want guys to have information about the development of the fetus.” That helps establish a bond.
As the program developed, Jones said, it grew to 100 and then to 200. The challenges, he said, are always there, and the feedback from these fathers is crucial.
He even told the folks in South Carolina that he is here to steal some of their ideas and implement them back in Baltimore. “That’s a promise.”
The Sisters of Charity Foundation is working with the Institute for Families in Society at the University of South Carolina to establish its program.
“We’re trying very hard to establish a learning community … to engage fathers in different ways,” said Cathy Wilson, associate director of that institute.
She told the grant seekers that they have the full support of both the institute and the Sisters of Charity. Not just financial support, but technical support and research support.
“This is your opportunity to incorporate the faith,” said Pat Littlejohn, who is with the Sisters of Charity Foundation. “You have the liberty to do that. It’s important to do that. It’s important to reach the heart of the father.”