On a Wednesday night, just a few days before Fathers Day, a group of young men gather in a classroom on the fourth floor of Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. There's food — pizza, soda and cookies — and the men stack their paper plates high before settling into their seats around the table in the center of the room. The meeting is about to begin.
This is the L.A. Fathers Program, a workshop for new and expecting fathers. The program has been running for two years, funded by a grant from the Office of Family Assistance with the Department of Health and Human Services. It supplies young men with diapers, transportation tokens, baby food and more.
Fathers also get job training and placement, case management services, parenting education and workshops to help them with their relationships.
The program lasts between eight and ten weeks, though many fathers stick around well past that point, becoming volunteers and helping newcomers navigate the workshops and discussions.
Project coordinator Frank Blaney says the most important thing the program provides for the men is a support network.
Parenthood is often unexpected for these men. They weren't planning to be dads, Blaney says. "They just get a lot of criticism and a lot of judgement from everybody in their family. So they basically just go from having a larger social support circle to none."
Most of the men who attend are between the ages of 15 and 25, though fathers as young as 14 have made their way through the program. Blaney says the men come from different backgrounds, but most of them are black or Latino and the majority of them are low-income.
Joel Ramirez started coming to the group about three months ago at his older brother's suggestion. Ramirez is 17, and he has a 6-month-old son. At first Ramirez was quiet and reluctant to participate in discussions, but he soon got more comfortable, and now he shares a lot. He says talking through his feelings helps with deal with the challenges of being a father.
"Everybody gets angry fast, but some people get angry fast fast, and I don't want my son to be like that, you know? It helps to talk," he says.
Like many of the fathers here, Ramirez didn't have a positive male role model growing up.
"My real dad was in prison all my life, and the guy who was raising me was my uncle — and he's in prison, off doing life," he says. "I don't want to be like that."
Blaney says all of the men he has worked with have a similar attitude: They want to be good dads.
"You have those stereotypes that are out there about the young fathers, and they just get women pregnant, and they just kind of leave, and to be honest with you, I just haven't seen that," he says.
The biggest challenge for the L.A. Fathers Program isn't motivating young men to be good dads, Blaney says. Rather, it's getting the word out to the broader community that the program is available.
"Everyone sees the mom pushing the stroller — so the dads, they're almost like an invisible group," he says. "So that's why we're really trying our best to let the community organizations that we work with ... know that these resources exist."
To date, the L.A. Fathers Program has helped over 400 young men get the resources they need. This year, they're on track to reach their goal of 250 fathers.
This Father's Day will be the first for Ramirez. He and his son's mother are going through a custody dispute, but Ramirez hopes he can spend some time with his son.
"Have a little picnic with him, you know? He can't eat that much, but feed him Gerber, show him the swings, something new," he says. "As long as I see my son, that's the best Father's Day I can ever have."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
To all you dads out there, happy Father's Day. Last Wednesday night I went to a class that teaches men how to be better fathers.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP CLASS, "THE LA FATHERS PROGRAM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What did we talk about last week? You remember?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The volcano.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The volcano out of what?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Of feelings.
RATH: This class, though, was not aimed at me - not that I couldn't use some help with my volcano of feelings. But this class is for young dads - as young as it gets. In the two years this program has been running in Los Angeles, youngest father to pass through was 14. The LA Fathers Program, which meets weekly, is run through the Adolescent Medicine Branch of LA's Children's Hospital. When it comes to kids having kids, it's usually the mothers who get the most attention and support. But today, we wanted to show you what some young men are going through as they work to become good fathers.
BEN WRIGHT: You know, they're not telling you what they need. In that way, you have to sort of be the detective and figure it out. But even when they're older...
RATH: Ben Wright is running the parenting discussion tonight.
WRIGHT: She's just having a big eruption. Right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Well my daughter, when she was, like, an infant, she pretty much would cry, you know, even if she had her diaper changed, you know.
RATH: There are about a dozen fathers here for class tonight. They range in age from 17 to 27. Sitting around a large table, this week, like every week, they have a check-in.
ROY: I'm Roy. I have a four-year-old daughter.
MARQUE: My name is Marque. I'm 22. I got a son.
CASEY: My name is Casey. I'm a father figure for my niece Alecia.
BRYAN: Nice to meet everybody. My name is Bryan. I got three kids. My son is two, my daughter is one and my newborn is four months.
RATH: Over 400 young fathers have passed through this program.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah. I'm talking about my new girl right now. She's straight trippin' bro.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And I'm serious.
RATH: Sure it's a pretty lively and fun crew tonight. The discussion ranges from resume building to romance.
FRANK BALENY: OK. So you observe that she's tripping. What do you think she's feeling?
RATH: That's the voice of Frank Blaney. He's head of the project and he runs part of the meeting. In addition to material things like free diapers and transportation tokens, these young men are here to get help finding jobs, learning to be better parents and working on relationships with the mothers of their children. Blaney says that for most of the young dads here, the thing they need more than anything else is peer support.
BLANEY: As they find out that they're dads, they're usually unexpected and not planning to be dads. They just get a lot of criticism and a lot of judgment from everybody and their family. It sometimes comes from their parents, often times comes from the partner's parents - the mother of the baby. A lot of times their friends look down on them. So they basically just go from having a broader social support circle to none.
RATH: The young fathers here are mostly black and Latino. Money is tight for them and some of the fathers have been homeless. And many didn't have any kind of father figure of their own, like Anthony Gomez. He has a two-year-old daughter.
ANTHONY GOMEZ: You know, I never had a father, like, no one, like, you know, that...
BLANEY: No father figure?
GOMEZ: Yeah. You know, so I really don't know much about what a man should know.
RATH: And as Frank Blaney told me, that's one of the things they work on here.
BLANEY: They're trying to figure out what to do with this new life that's in their life. And they're trying to just cope and navigate with that. If they can get some information from the staff, if they can get some support from young men that are in the same position - it really means a lot to them.
RATH: These weekly meetings are safe place for these young dads to open up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Because when I see myself crying, I get mad at myself. And, I'm like, why you crying?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Why you look in the mirror like that then?
RATH: 17-year-old Joal Ramirez has been coming here for about three months. Joal has a six-month-old son. He says he found out about the group from his older brother, who's also in the program. When he first started coming, Joal says he was reluctant to open up. Now he shares a lot.
JOAL RAMIREZ: When she told me she was pregnant, I just started crying. I was at school, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Hey, I get that. I would too. I would be like, my life is over now.
RAMIREZ: No. I wouldn't say that. I was at football practice and she called me. She called me. She called me and I started crying, you know.
RATH: Joal tells me he's still in high school now but like many of these guys he's been pressured to drop out - to get a job. His son's mother is 19. And she's already graduated.
RAMIREZ: A lot of people are like, oh what are you going to do? Are you going to drop out of school? And I always told myself never. You know, I'm not going to drop out of school because my brother - a lot of my brothers friends didn't finish high school and they're working minimum wage. That I don't want to be like that. I want to give my son all I can. And I want to give myself all I can. To me, a high school diploma is more than a GED. School really helps.
RATH: The LA father's program is helping him line up some summer jobs. When he's over 18, they'll help with his resume and other job skills. But for Joal, the most helpful part has been learning about anger management.
RAMIREZ: You know, everybody gets angry fast but, like, some people get angry fast-fast. And I don't want my son to be like that because, you know, it helps to talk.
RATH: He tells me the program has changed his idea of what it means to be a dad.
RAMIREZ: My real dad was in prison all my life. And the guy who was raising he was my uncle and he's in prison doing life. I don't want to be like that.
RATH: Joal plans to finish high school, join the Marines and go to college. Frank Blaney says stereotype of the unmarried young father, as an irresponsible, deadbeat is just flat wrong.
BLANEY: To be honest with you, I just haven't seen that. A lot of these guys, especially ones that haven't grown up without a father, know how painful that experience is. And instead of being bitter about that, they really make a 180 and make a 110 percent commitment of being there for their kids. Everyone sees the mom. Everyone sees the mom pushing the stroller. So the dad's, they're almost like an invisible group - no one can really tell. And that's why we're really trying our best to let the community organizations that we work, with the social institutions that are here - let them know that these resources exist.
RATH: These dads attend classes for at least eight weeks. At 27, Royman Santu (ph) is one of the older young dads. And now he's coming as a volunteer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: I mean, like, I feel, like, people in general - it's kind of hard people to accept that someone truly cares and loves them. Because it's like, why does this person love me? You know, why are they telling me that they love me? You know.
ROYMAN SANTU: So let me throw this at you, is that person actually love with you or are they in love with the fact that you love them?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: That's a good one.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: I like that right there.
BLANEY: Once they have that child, they really take to heart that responsibility that seems to create, like, an opening in their mind and their heart to want to grow to - really get past the nonsense that they maybe were involved as teenagers and young people. And really push through and be there for their family. For me, it's very encouraging to see them on a daily basis.
RATH: All the young dads I spoke with were excited about Father's Day. For Joal Ramirez, it's his first. Sadly though, he's been having a dispute with his son's mother over visitation rights. So for today, he has a simple wish.
RAMIREZ: Just take my son to the park, have a little picnic with them, you know, he can't eat that much but feel him gerber. As long as I see my son, that's the best Father's Day I can ever have.
RATH: Frank Blaney's target is to get 250 young men through the program each year. So far, they're on track. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.