At 17 years of age, Kaeran Reyes-Little became a father.
Growing up in Queens, N.Y. — dad gone, mom working long shifts at the hospital — Reyes-Little found himself hanging with an older crowd, getting in trouble with the law. “I think that was God’s way of saying slow down,” he says of the birth of his son, Darius.
Even though he had just crossed into adulthood, Reyes-Little refused to perpetuate his own dad’s mistakes, to repeat the cycle. He took full custody of his son and tattooed his name across his forearm. Most mornings, Reyes-Little woke up at 4 a.m., wrestling with anxiety. “Why did I have a kid so early?” he’d ask himself. “I didn’t get to build a foundation before having to lay my son’s. What am I going to do?”
Through his older brother, Reyes-Little heard about Fatherhood Academy, a City University of New York program aiming to stop the downward spiral in broken families. Despite being apprehensive at first, he signed up. What he found there was a revelation: “Life’s not over. You’re still somebody,” he recalls hearing. “When you’re a single parent, you’re in a bubble already. It takes another parent to understand what that feels like. And this is not just parents, but fathers.”
Across New York City, 749,000 kids are raised by single parents. With the help of Fatherhood Academy — an initiative that was put on hold this spring due to uncertain funding — dozens of young dads like Reyes-Little are learning how to make a better life for their children.
As a member of the program, Reyes-Little earned his high school diploma at 19. And with some prodding, he enrolled in community college, where he’s now pulling a 3.0 GPA. Pursuing a passion for science that’s been with him since childhood, he’s specializing in marine biology.
“I’m a geek at heart,” he reveals, an admission that doesn’t sound strange through his wide grin, but on second thought, makes you pause. Did this tattooed 24-year-old with a rap sheet just say that? This guy, who was once so angry at his father, so bitter because it seemed anyone would betray him for a price, really just fess up to being a science nerd? And then, in case you didn’t hear him at first, Reyes-Little laughs and says, “My son’s the same way.”
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For generations, New York City has been the destination for those hoping for a brand new start. But for all of Sinatra’s crooning, the city rarely offers those possibilities to its own children — particularly those in impoverished neighborhoods. In the Bronx, 44 percent of kids are raised below the poverty line, and in Brooklyn, one in three won’t graduate from high school.
Unlike traditional parenting services (which are usually aimed at single mothers), Fatherhood Academy is, as its name indicates, just for dads. Through several weeks of high school equivalency (HSE) test-prep classes, workshops and mentoring, New York City’s young men learn to become better parents and start on the path towards a college degree or a stable career.
“Fathers are the mentors for their children. If they’re in a different situation economically and mentally, those improvements are so huge,” says Raheem Brooks, the program’s coordinator. “We want to stop this cycle that’s been going on in their families, because they’re training the future leaders of our city.”
With flyers posted in housing projects, Fatherhood Academy targets young men between the ages of 18 and 24. An open enrollment policy (meaning no application questions inquire about criminal history) results in a mix of dads from all over the city. Several still live with the child’s mom, some share custody and an increasing number are single dads raising newborns alone. But they all share an automatic respect for each other as fathers.
“They all want something better for their children, but they don’t know how to get it,” says David Speal, counselor and case manager for Fatherhood Academy. “They just need that understanding and guidance.”
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The program operates out of the continuing education center at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. There’s a persistent bustle in its bright, second-floor office as students drop off forms and ask the secretaries for help (even after being tsk-tsk’ed for wearing hoods inside). The door is always open, even during meetings when it stays slightly ajar.
Brooks and Speal, the two men behind the program, are an odd couple. Brooks is an imposing figure: He’s tall, African-American and sports dreadlocks that fall below his wide shoulder blades. Born in Detroit, he began his career in East Harlem as a “follow-up specialist,” which essentially meant knocking on doors to find the at-risk guys who’d missed appointments.
Beside him, Speal is white, slender and earnestly enthused, like a grown-up camp counselor. A lifelong resident of Queens, he started volunteering at Rikers Island, NYC’s main correctional facility, while enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and was later hired as a case manager there. During one counseling session, a young inmate told Speal, “I gotta go. I got special permission.” “For what?” Speal asked. “To visit my father. He’s in the dorm down the hall.” Fatherhood Academy wasn’t born that moment, but Speal says witnessing the ensnaring cycle firsthand invigorates his work today.
“They don’t want the same thing that happened to them to be true for their kids,” Speal explains.
“The conversations have already changed,” Brooks chimes in. “Our guys can say, ‘Hey, let’s go do homework.’ Suddenly, it’s ‘Daddy’s going to college,’ rather than ‘Daddy’s not around.’ It’s a different dynamic that they never had.”
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Fatherhood Academy begins with a three-week “boot camp” to test commitment and gauge the group’s educational level, then jumps right into 13 weeks of training for the HSE test. Since classes are held on a college campus, dads become accustomed to the feel of higher education. “Rather than just stop here and get my GED, they can see, ‘I’m among young people that look similar to me. I can do that,’” Brooks says.
Afternoons focus on parenting topics. Nonprofits and motivational speakers give presentations on how to cook on a budget (think: a tasty pineapple chicken recipe), balance a budget or administer CPR. In smaller groups, the dads have wide-ranging discussions that touch on everything from changing diapers to relationships with family. “Men don’t have these conversations, you know, talking about feelings towards their father, how they were raised and the values we are going to have in our children,” Brooks says.
Fathers are the mentors for their children…We want to stop this cycle that’s been going on in their families, because they’re training the future leaders of our city.”
— Raheem Brooks, Fatherhood Academy
Those conversations build a brotherhood that provides support when members face with bigger challenges: “homelessness, not enough to eat, issues with the mother, visitation and custody, drug addiction and alcohol, anger, just different things,” Brooks says. Many of these trials aren’t new, but now the men’s responses have changed. “We’re noticing that the guys are seeing a different version of themselves now,” Brooks says. “They bought into the program and into the possibilities for their own growth.”
It all concludes with a cap-and-gown ceremony, a first for many. With five cohorts now completed, the program has graduated 136 men. Fifty-nine of the dads passed the HSE test, 21 of whom are now in college. More than half — 80 fathers — were placed in jobs, and another 35 landed internships.
By all counts, the program has been successful, but for months, Fatherhood Academy hasn’t held a class. Launched by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2012 as part of the Young Men’s Initiative, the initial seed grants from the Bloomberg Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation ran dry, and the program wasn’t included in the most recent budget issued by Mayor Bill DeBlasio. “Here’s a program that actually works, and now the funding has vanished like a deadbeat dad,” a reporter at the New York Daily News wrote in October, noting that the $550,000 budget is roughly the same as housing 10 inmates at Rikers for a year.
“It was tough. We know these guys individually, so it’s really personal,” Brooks states. “Guys would call you saying, ‘Hey, can I be in your next cohort?’ and you’d have to tell them, ‘We’re not going to be around, but I’ll take your name down.’”
Good news came from City Hall last month, when Brooks and Speal found out that Fatherhood Academy is set to become an official city program funded in the next budget cycle. They’re planning to start the next session this summer. Meaning that soon, 60 young dads will be receiving a call with good news: The academy is back in session.