CINCINNATI — Savon Gibson never considered himself a bad father. But he wanted to be better.
So when a friend told him about the Talbert House Fatherhood Project, he decided to check it out.
Gibson attended Nurturing Father classes through the program over 10 weeks. He got help improving his resume and job-hunting skills. And he learned better ways to communicate with his three kids and their moms.
"It definitely worked wonders," Gibson said of how the program changed his relationship with his kids. "There's more participation, not only financially but emotionally and just being available. Not always being the person who brings the discipline, but also the person who brings the love, brings the funny and brings the heart as well."
That's the thing that a lot of people don't seem to understand about dads.
Whether they're rich or poor or in between, men want to be good fathers who are involved in their kids' lives, said Harold Howard, director of the community care service line at Talbert House. His job includes overseeing the Fatherhood Project.
"We work off the premise that all men want to father well," Howard told me. "We don't judge anybody coming in the door. We want to meet them where they're at. Everybody has some level of struggle."
The Fatherhood Project aims to help men work through those struggles to heal themselves so they can be better fathers to their children and better partners for their children's mothers.
"We live in a society where we have fathers that have kind of been disenfranchised from the family for a number of reasons," Howard said. "We're trying to get at the root of the issue as far as really working and addressing these issues with fathers."
Helping men become better fathers also is a critical part of addressing our region's childhood poverty crisis. That's because two out of every three poor children in the city of Cincinnati live with single mothers.
Helping men become better fathers and providers attacks child poverty "at its root," Howard said.
"If we can really help build the father up, it really helps the entire family," he said. "That's our goal. That's our mission."
'Debt of Gratitude'
The Fatherhood Project, which is free for participants, has something to offer for men no matter their backgrounds.
John Silverman, the managing principal of Midland Atlantic Properties and a long-time supporter of the initiative, knows first-hand.
He was observing a class as a Talbert House board member five or six years ago. The men in the class were talking about things they wished their own fathers had told them.
The men then began discussing the unspoken feelings they wanted to share with their own children.
Unlike most of the class participants, Silverman's father was in his life growing up. Silverman had always been around for his own daughters and considered himself a good dad.
But there was an empty spot in the class, and Howard insisted that Silverman join the group.
By the end of the session, Silverman realized there were things he needed to tell his own daughters. And he did later that same day.
"I walked away from one class and was a better father," he said. "I feel a deep debt of gratitude."
Silverman didn't want to share what he told his daughters that day. But just remembering the experience was enough to have him fighting back tears.
Savon Gibson understands.
He has always been present in the lives of his two daughters and his son. But he wanted to be the best father he could be, and the Fatherhood Project has helped him on that journey.
"It opened the door and let me know there are a ton more men that are going through the same situations and are striving daily — just to be a better father in general," Gibson said.
That's not as easy as it sounds.
$26 Every Two Weeks
Lots of dads who are struggling to support their kids have felony convictions that make it difficult to get jobs.
Gibson himself never served time in prison. But he had a felony that stemmed from "being in the streets in my 20s."
That felony made it pretty much impossible for him to get the kind of job he needed and wanted to support his kids, despite the fact that he had an associate's degree, Gibson said.
He worked to get his record expunged and quickly got a job that has helped change his life. He has since completed a four-year degree and now works for the Internal Revenue Service.
"I've been at the IRS for the past three years. And it's totally a different lifestyle from having a record and not having one," he said. "Some people won't even rent you a place (if you have a record). You do the time for life."
Other men in Gibson's Nurturing Fathers class had it much tougher.
"The child support system has crippled a lot of men," Gibson said.
Child support payments aren't halted when men are locked up in jail or prison. That means dads can have a big child support bill waiting for them after they are released.
"I was in the fatherhood class with a man who was going through that," Gibson said. "Every two weeks, he got paid $26 because of child support he owed. He wasn't allowed to get subsidized housing. He can't get SNAP (the new term for food stamps). These are things that help cripple fathers in the community, and it makes it harder for us to be leaders in the community."
It's a complicated issue, to be sure.
As a mom, I understand why the law requires non-custodial parents to pay child support no matter what. But as a human being, I don't understand how a grown man is supposed to support himself on a paycheck of $26 every two weeks.
"It's definitely a horrible cycle," Gibson said.
But it's a cycle the Fatherhood Project is determined to break.
The initiative serves more than 250 each year. Last year, its various programs and services helped 417 fathers and impacted more than 1,000 children.
Gibson is convinced it has worked for him. Not only is he a better father, Gibson recently completed training through the United Way of Greater Cincinnati to prepare him to serve as a board member of a local nonprofit organization.
He credits the Fatherhood Project for inspiring him to give back to his kids and his community.
For Howard, that's what it's all about.
"When we talk about breeding healthy men and healthy fathers, that's not only to the children that they birthed but also to the community as a whole — as leaders, as role models," he said. "That's the example we want out in the community."
Talbert House will host a free Fatherhood Community Celebration from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Father's Day — Sunday, June 19, 2016 — at Sawyer Point in Cincinnati. The event is free and open to the community, with food, games, live music and more. For more information about the celebration, click here.
For more information about Talbert House's Fatherhood Project, click here.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.