- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tanner Raboya spent 27 years — more than half his life — hustling and shooting heroin. He went to prison and left his partner to raise their three small children.

Those days of drugs and aimlessness are over, says the 44-year-old D.C. native. He is rebuilding his life around the pillars of work, faith and fatherhood.

Raboya participates in the Fatherhood Initiative, a three-year-old D.C. program that helps low-income fathers serve their families. Last year, the program expanded to include ex-convicts such as Raboya.

“I know as long as I follow the format laid out in the Fatherhood Initiative, I’ll be all right,” said Raboya, who is on probation until next year. “My role is father, provider, husband and spiritual leader of my household. Anything less is unacceptable.”

In the program, men learn parenting and life skills, and talk about spiritual principles. They also learn trade skills and anger management at the Hope Foundation, the Reintegrating Alternative Personal Program (RAPP) and the Arch Training Center.

They get help with addictions, earn general equivalency diplomas and are steered toward jobs with partnering companies.

“Social services were once reserved only for women with children,” said Yvonne Gilchrist, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. “No thought was given to the problems that keep many fathers from being responsibly involved in their children’s lives.

“Fathers matter — and their involvement is vital, especially in low-income families.”

The Fatherhood Initiative works with seven community-based groups to “remove barriers to positive male involvement,” Ms. Gilchrist said. Last year, more than 1,000 men participated in the program.

At the Hope Foundation on Howard Road SE, Executive Director James E. Johnson and Director Delores Davis start from scratch.

“What most programs do is try and use books to teach these young men,” said Ms. Davis, 68. “But I start where a mother begins. I tell them, ‘Don’t mumble. Take your hat off. And sit up straight,’” she said.

Raboya said it works: He holds down two jobs and plays an active role — including disciplinarian — in his children’s lives.

He lives a disciplined life, too: “[Without] my meetings, exercise, proper rest and diet … I’m in trouble. This program helps me because an addict alone is an addict in bad company.”

Other participants echo him.

Dontae Hamlett, 24, was a few credit hours away from earning a degree when he learned two years ago that he was a father.

“I was just a young father who thought he knew how to be a dad,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure about settling down. “I questioned whether I wanted to get married.”

He turned to the Rev. Judith Talbert, founder of Faith Tabernacle of Prayer and executive director of RAPP on Alabama Avenue SE.

“I learned that I wanted a family — a complete family unit,” said Mr. Hamlett, who married the mother of his daughter in April.

Vernetta Nichelson, program director for the Fatherhood Initiative at RAPP, said the program raises morale by providing support and services, including couples counseling.

“We act as a mediator between the two. We create a bridge between the parents for the sake of the children,” Ms. Nichelson said.

RAPP also provides legal assistance for ex-offenders. Staff lawyers work with clients to renegotiate child-support payments.

That kind of support means a lot to young fathers, especially as Father’s Day nears.

Antonio Parrish, 21, another Fatherhood Initiative participant, said he is focusing on making a better life for his 6-month-old son.

Through the Arch Training Center on Good Hope Road SE, he is acquiring experience that he hopes will lead to a job in construction and maybe his own business. Through it all, he plans to be there for his son.

“This is my first Father’s Day, and it’s hitting me now. I just want to be the father I never had,” he said.

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