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Valentine and Daniel

Valentine J. had been through the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the state’s juvenile corrections agency, before. The last time he was there however, he was referred to parenting classes with Southwest Key’s Fatherhood Program in San Antonio, Texas. He didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know if it would really help. He was 17 years old and was weeks away from becoming a dad.

Fast forward eight months later: as I sit across the table from him, Valentine talks to me about his experience with the Fatherhood Program. It has changed his life, he tells me. He has not run into any more legal problems. I ask him if he thinks he would be a different person and father had he not been referred to the Fatherhood Program. He looks at me and says “I’d probably be in jail, locked up or probably end up dead.” He says it was the first time he received support services that really worked.

The program offers more than just a parenting class, Valentine found support in all areas of life. He says, “If you’re struggling, they’ll help you with pretty much anything.” The Fatherhood Program goes beyond offering counseling and offers assistance to its participants if they are in need of bare necessities such as clothing, food or shelter.

Daniel Z. sits in the chair next to him. Daniel was introduced to the Fatherhood Program after being involved in the Intensive Supervision Program in San Antonio. He told his caseworker that he had a baby on the way and was invited to take part in the Fatherhood Program. He found that what he liked most was being able to talk about his problems with other guys who that had similar backgrounds and similar problems.

“You never see a group of guys communicate like we do” says Daniel. Both guys talk about the close niche of friends and confidants they have found at the Fatherhood Program. They say it has helped them tremendously to be able to sit and talk with one another. “It’s helpful, fun and therapeutic,” says Valentine. Among other things it has helped him manage his anger and be a better father to his eight month old daughter. He says it even improved his relationship with his own father, “Me and my dad talk more, we spend more time together now.”

Daniel says he has been able to relieve stress. The Fatherhood Program has taught him what to expect when his baby arrives and how to cope with new developments, “It’s not only about understanding the baby,” he adds, “it’s about understanding the female perspective, too.”

Jerome Mauricio looks on from the other side of the table. The look on his face tells me he is proud of both guys. As the Fatherhood Program caseworker, Jerome has worked with Valentine, Daniel and 64 other males currently in the program. He is on-call 24 hours a day and expresses how unique the Fatherhood Program is. He currently runs five different groups around San Antonio including one at the Bexar County Jail and another at the TYC center.

In its sixth year of existence, Jerome says that the program has reached out to a sector of population that had been forgotten. He states that the program has an open door policy, “They can always come back for support, it’s an ongoing program, it never stops.” When I visited the facility, he was getting ready to prepare the students for an upcoming job fair. The participants were also getting ready to take part in their next self-building activity, making a mask that signifies who they are on the inside and the outside.

Jerome continues to establish relationships with the juvenile justice courts and parole officers to receive participant referrals. He says half of the males in the juvenile courts are fathers and the program works to provide a therapeutic alternative and helpful service to many of these young fathers. Jerome also notes that many of the participants have been collaborative friend referrals--in other words many current participants influence other young men to take part in the program.

With its unique supportive structure, it is probably the reason many participants keep coming back even after their completion with the program. Valentine completed the Fatherhood Program a couple of months ago but he continues to attend sessions, volunteer and participate in activities. “I can’t wait for Thursdays to come up and get together, talk and watch movies,” he says. Valentine is currently working over the summer and plans to go back to high school. He hopes to become an Italian chef someday and is back on track toward achieving his goals.