WASHINGTON – Richard Marshall said he used to do two things really well: Play basketball and sell drugs.
Before enrolling in the Baltimore City Healthy Start Men’s Services Program, he spent most of his time on the streets indulging in one of the two.
These days, the 21-year-old finds being an active and productive father a more rewarding pastime.
“The street is where I came from but thanks to Healthy Start, the street is not where I am going to be,” he said. “When I look at my son, I know that I can’t take the risk that I would have to raise him from behind bars. I can’t take that chance.”
Marshall, who now holds two jobs while attending Baltimore City Community College, is one of hundreds of poor, single fathers of welfare children in Baltimore who has been targeted by a new $600,000 grant from the federal government and a private non-profit group.
The Baltimore grant is part of a $10 million effort announced Tuesday by the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership (NPCL) and the U.S Department of Labor. The program — Partners for Fragile Families: Focus on Fathers — aims get fathers like Marshall financially and emotionally involved in the lives of their children.
Half of the $10 million will come from the federal government with the other half pledged by private foundations.
The NPCL project provides grants to community-based public-private partnerships that focus on rehabilitating so-called “dead- broke dads,” who don’t have the wage-earning and parenting skills necessary to raise a child. Modeled after similar programs for women, the project is designed to help disadvantaged single dads get schooling and teach them life-skills.
“What is different about this program is that we make sure to bring the fathers into the equation to say that whole families matter,” Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said Tuesday. “If we are going to be serious about helping families we have to focus on mothers and fathers. It’s a real recognition that it really does take two.”
NPCL President Jeffery Johnson said the program aims to restore the fathers’ self- pride by providing them with the means to make productive changes in their lives and in the lives of their children.
“This project has two main goals: To help poor, single fathers become responsible participants in their children’s lives and to increase these fathers’ financial support of their children by giving them the means and the opportunity to earn a decent wage,” he said. “We are doing more than helping people move from welfare to work. We are helping people move from welfare to life.”
The Baltimore project, one of 10 across the country to receive grants, is a coalition of five organizations: the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, the Baltimore City Healthy Start Men’s Services Program, the Baltimore Urban League, the Maryland Department of Human Resources and Lockheed Martin IMS.
Joe Jones, director of employment and men’s services for Baltimore Healthy Start, said the grant will help bring disadvantaged fathers into the family equation and find ways to address the challenges they face in trying to be productive parents.
“We’re talking about individuals who people tend to write off, who live in environments where it is more a benefit to have been in jail than to have gotten a high school diploma,” he said. “We have to work for these young men to make sure they don’t get lost and that the children don’t suffer because of it.”
Jones said the grant money will allow the cooperative to hire more staff and provide broader resources, such as instruction on parenting and employment training and placement. Helping fathers develop parenting plans is one of the project’s major goals, he said.
“Many of these young men have no idea of how to parent because they never had a father in their lives to teach them,” he said.
Jones said the social service system has offered lopsided service in the past, focusing on the mothers as a means of rebuilding the family. He said programs need to work to get both parents to function as a team, “like the Green Bay Packers.”
“Teammates on the Green Bay Packers may not like other teammates but they have to work together to win the Super Bowl. We have to teach them [parents] that,” he said.
Marshall said he is learning that lesson. He said Healthy Start has given him a new outlook on life and new hope for the future.
“I can rest at night knowing that some child didn’t go hungry because some mother came to me with their last [money to buy drugs],” he said. “I love what my life is like and I appreciate everything Healthy Start has done for me.”