Fatherhood Ministry Headquartered in Washington

Fatherhood.GIF (105565 bytes)

by Yvonne J. Medle

To move up in this organization you need to have a testimony, a victory, and a heart to share them both. That’s because The Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization thrives on the testimonies and victories of the lives it has changed forever.

Research conducted by The Institute reveals that in the United States 21 million children, of all races, are living in fatherless homes. It further states that these children are at an alarmingly higher risk for violent and/or dysfunctional behavior (and in some instances it’s as high as 85 percent) than children reared by two stable and nurturing parents. Since The Institute’s inception in 1982, it has helped an estimated 5,400 men to reconnect with their children, and it has mended countless families. The process started in Cleveland, through the vision of its Founder and President Charles Ballard. Ballard, who wanted to alleviate (for others) the pain he once felt because he grew up without his father, initiated a highly successful 16-year model program in Cleveland--and the fruits were phenomenal. Today, the nonprofit organization still operates in Ohio and has blossomed in California, New York, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and in Washington, where he is now headquartered.

In one of Washington’s troubled neighborhoods, plagued by crime, substance abuse, and broken homes, a couple of people are sitting around talking ‘shop’ in a one bedroom apartment, converted into The Institute’s community site office. Ironically, the apartment complex is called Paradise-Parkside and the office is located on Courage Court. A young mother prepares her baby for the outdoors, bids everyone a cordial good-bye and takes leave of the premises, while a light discussion progresses on how best to reach estranged fathers.

"I don’t mind going door-to-door," says Thomas Fulford Jr. to LuCretia Armstrong, who’s sitting across from him in a modest space of what could have been someone’s living room. Fulford, 47, is one of The Institute’s interns (a former Institute prot?g? and a father of four, who once benefited from The Institute’s services and is now on staff). Armstrong, 28, a mother of three, was also a prot?g? and an intern. Now she works for The Institute as an outreach specialist. The term ‘prot?g?’ is used for those who are recipients of The Institute’s services.

Fulford explains to Armstrong that he’s had plenty of other jobs where he’s had to go door-to-door, so the notion of combing the community seeking out residents who need help is no problem for him at all. Fulford gets his point across, intermittently while manning the office phones,
"Hello, Institute for Responsible Fatherhood. How may I direct your call?" he says politely to each caller.

"But…" he continues, when he gets a breather. "…where’s the basketball court or the rec. center,"he asks rhetorically. "That’s where you’ll find ’em," he surmises.

In such an environment (like a basketball court) an outreach specialist could identify several people who might need help, Fulford reasons, and, at the same time, he says, open them up to healthy and healing dialogue. Armstrong shakes her head in agreement. Hence, he’s satisfied that his point has been made.

The Institute works from within the community, setting up community-site offices, sending outreach specialists directly to those in need, offering them assessments of their present situations, which usually flushes out all kinds of historical issues that need immediate attention. Then a specialist gives them a prognosis on where they’re headed if things don’t change and lays out options for improvement. And that’s when a specialist is usually invited to come into the life of someone who needs help. The Institute deals in confidence building, problem-solving, the realignment of broken and misdirected families and parental relationships, and it opens avenues to education and employment.

Back in Paradise-Parkside, the conversation moves on, while another gentlemen, Darnell Thomas; the Institute’s entrepreneurship specialist enters the office bearing pizza for his coworkers. As they all divvy up slices, the conversation shifts to a bit of bad news. It is revealed that a young woman, whom they have counseled and placed in new job, arrived on her first day of work under the influence of drugs. Now the conversation breaks up into bits of solemn silence and disappointment. Everyone knows that a successful job placement (which comes by way of The Institute’s ever evolving relationships within the business community) translates into another job opportunity for someone else. Thomas, who sees what he does as a ministry, not just a job, takes the lead in problem solving and damage control.

Armstrong, who’s sitting behind a desk in attractive business attire, with her shoes off, takes a moment to step in the shoes of the woman in question and sympathizes with her situation. "Even I know that if something [even something unsavory like being ‘high’] happens you make a call to say you can’t make it," she says. Then Armstrong cuts under her breath something like, "Lord knows I’ve had enough…" She doesn’t finish her sentence because the consensus is that everyone already knows what she’d like to say. Armstrong has been drug-free for five years now.

"I was like most of these women out here on drugs, and just having all kinds of trouble," she says in a brutally honest and direct tone. Armstrong credits The Institute with helping her straighten out her life and regain a friendly relationship with the father of her youngest child (a two-year-old). "Just putting myself in his place-kinda’ flippin’ the script-so to speak," she says, enabled her to better understand his perspective on things and what he was going through. "And we are good friends right today," she says, "It blossomed back into a friendly relationship."

Fulford can sympathize with the woman as well, while he sits there, also smartly dressed in business attire and on his best professional behavior, he can recall a time when his life was in turmoil. Fulford says that he was already a prot?g? of The Institute in Cleveland for a year when he ended up in prison. But, he doesn’t call that chain of events a downfall. Fulford spent his prison time administering to his fellow inmates the techniques he’d learned from The Institute and he never stopped his sessions with the organization, as well. "That helped me stay positive and turned my situation into a breakthrough instead of a breakdown. It actually gave my life back to me, freed me from drug use, and taught me the importance of being responsible and that I’m accountable for my actions," Fulford says.

Evening is falling quickly over Paradise-Parkside, as Bruce and Cesalie Jenkins, the on-site managers, rush into the office (a counseling session held there shortly) straight from dealing with a family in crisis out in the community. When they are made aware of the situation concerning the young woman and her job, heartache consumes their facial expressions, just as it did the others. But the disappointment lingers for only a moment before the problem solving continues. Issues at hand are how to ensure that prot?g?s will show up for work in a professional manner and mind-frame, and ‘clean’ (i.e. drug-free).

While the situation may be grim, it does not catch them off guard, nor is it viewed as unrepairable. If there’s one thing that The Institute acknowledges it’s the fact that dealing with human frailty will often produce human err. The trick is to know how to come back and not give up.

"What helps is remembering that God never turns us away" says Cesalie. "When people mess up you can’t just get up there and turn them out," adds Bruce. "With this [organization] we’re about being human antibiotics in the community. We realize that the community is sick. So, when people show up sick, we have to show up and look beyond their faults and meet them where they’re at. So we’re not going to be judgmental [about the woman in question], but we will let her know that her actions did effect other people. She does need to understand cause-and effect."

While The Institute focuses on fathers, explains Cesalie, helping the mothers is an attractive bonus. "That’s just gravy,"says Cesalie, enthusiastically.

Ballard hires strong married couples (with children), like the Jenkins who have been married for 16 years. And he hires former prot?g?s, like Fulford and Armstrong, because they all serve as effective models for the community. He calls them ‘human antibodies’ placed in the community. What can be more powerful, he says, than an ailing community witnessing the lives of thriving, working success stories and Christian family units, practicing what they preach. And, Ballard’s organization, which is supported by private and public funding, offers competitive salaries for a dedicated line of work that can have its employees on call 24/7.

"We take men who have gone through our program and they become the models [for success]. They’ve overcome drugs. They’ve overcome violence. They’ve overcome high risk behavior, then we in turn hire those people to go back into their own communities as antibodies, now strengthened. It’s a tremendous concept," he says.

Ballard says that The Institute’s human antibiotics are meant to dissipate the ill effects brought on by the nation’s foster care, prison, and welfare systems. Systems, that particularly debilitate African American males and families. "We are less than 10 percent of the country’s population, but [represent] over 55 percent in the prison system," says Ballard.

When Ballard was three years old his father, who worked in a coal mine, died suddenly. In those days, Ballard reminisces; adults didn’t explain things to children, so in his young mind his father just simply disappeared. Ballard says that growing up without a father can be so painful it can render you numb. He tucked his pain and disappointment away in years of rebellion. He didn’t make it in school, resisted parental and legal authority, and later on, the military. Ballard became a teenage father, abandoned his child (a son), and he even spent time in prison. And then, his life was changed forever. While in prison, he gave his life to Christ.

Today, Ballard, 62 has a masters in Social Welfare Administration, is married and the CEO of The Institute. He and his wife of 19 years, Frances (also his co-partner in the organization, have three children. When his oldest son, who is now 43, was five years old, Ballard legally adopted him and wholeheartedly assumed his fatherly role. In a soft spoken, humbling tone garnished with a smile, Ballard proudly says, "all he knows is this side of me."