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. Thats because The Institute
for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization thrives on the testimonies and
victories of the lives it has changed forever.
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
its as high as 85 percent) than children reared by two stable and nurturing parents.
Since The Institutes 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
In one of Washingtons 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 Institutes 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 dont mind going door-to-door," says Thomas Fulford
Jr. to LuCretia Armstrong, whos sitting across from him in a modest space of what
could have been someones living room. Fulford, 47, is one of The Institutes
interns (a former Institute prot?g? and a father of four, who once benefited from The
Institutes 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 Institutes
Fulford explains to Armstrong that hes had plenty of other jobs
where hes 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.
" he continues, when he gets a breather.
wheres the basketball court or the rec. center,"he asks
rhetorically. "Thats where youll 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, hes 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 theyre headed if things dont change and lays out options for
improvement. And thats 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 Institutes 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 Institutes 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, whos 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 cant make
it," she says. Then Armstrong cuts under her breath something like, "Lord knows
Ive had enough
" She doesnt finish her sentence because the
consensus is that everyone already knows what shed 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
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 doesnt
call that chain of events a downfall. Fulford spent his prison time administering to his
fellow inmates the techniques hed 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
Im 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 theres one thing that The Institute acknowledges
its 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 cant just get up there and turn them
out," adds Bruce. "With this [organization] were 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 theyre
at. So were 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
While The Institute focuses on fathers, explains Cesalie, helping the
mothers is an attractive bonus. "Thats just gravy,"says Cesalie,
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, Ballards 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]. Theyve overcome drugs. Theyve overcome violence.
Theyve overcome high risk behavior, then we in turn hire those people to go back
into their own communities as antibodies, now strengthened. Its a tremendous
concept," he says.
Ballard says that The Institutes human antibiotics are meant to
dissipate the ill effects brought on by the nations foster care, prison, and welfare
systems. Systems, that particularly debilitate African American males and families.
"We are less than 10 percent of the countrys 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 didnt 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 didnt 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."