Friday, June 16, 2006

In his 70 years, Charles Augustus Ballard has overcome the loss of his coal-miner father, functional illiteracy, a stint in prison and unwed fatherhood.

His experiences led him to found in 1982 a national organization that was one of the first — if not the first — to promote “responsible fatherhood” as a social policy, the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization (IRFFR).

Last month, one of his dreams came true: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the availability of its first funding stream dedicated to “responsible fatherhood” programs.

But for Mr. Ballard, the $32 million announcement comes amid a difficult personal struggle: He came home Wednesday from a Bowie rehabilitation center, where he has been recovering from a devastating stroke suffered in January.

His new goals are to walk without a cane and resume jogging; write a book about restoring broken relationships; and help his wife, Frances, rebuild their organization.

The couple is already in discussions with several organizations about partnering with the IRFFR. Applications for the new grants are due in two weeks.

For the moment, Mr. Ballard is grateful to be home again, having relearned how to talk, walk and eat.

“I am going to really hit the road running,” he said in his Glenn Dale home.

“My husband is a man of tremendous faith and I am, too,” Mrs. Ballard said. “The mission and purpose and drive goes forward.”

The problem of “fatherlessness” first gained widespread national attention more than a decade ago.

Milestones include Ken Canfield’s 1990 founding of the National Center for Fathering; the 1994 debut of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), founded by Don E. Eberly; and the 1995 publication of “Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem,” by David Blankenhorn.

“Fathers are not superfluous. They are indispensable and irreplaceable,” Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, said in 1995 when he was NFI director.

When NFI started, there were about 100 fatherhood programs. Today, there are “too many to count” because so many programs now include fatherhood programming, said NFI spokesman Vincent DiCaro.

But all this interest came years after Mr. Ballard started the IRFFR in Cleveland.

Galvanized by his personal experiences with fatherlessness — his father died when he was 3 and he became an unwed father as a teen — plus his conversion to Christianity while in prison, Mr. Ballard decided to work to connect men to their children. He chose his motto from the Bible’s Book of Malachi — “turning the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.”

Mr. Ballard’s novel approach was to use married “mentor couples” as his outreach workers. The couples scoured neighborhoods for single fathers and served them and their families around the clock, teaching the men why they should establish paternity, strengthen their fathering skills, finish school, get jobs and support their children. The vast majority of IRFFR fathers achieved these goals, and more than a few got married.

“The most powerful job-creation program is one that instills in a father a desire to fulfill his first job — that is, to love his children and respect their mother,” Mr. Ballard said in 1998 in one of his many appeals to Congress to fund programs that show fathers how to be financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually responsible for their children.

Thanks to federal and private grants, Mr. Ballard’s IRFFR spread to a dozen cities — including Washington — and generated national confidence in the idea of responsible fatherhood programs.

Each of the new HHS grants for fatherhood programs “will be a testament to the leadership Charles has shown through the years on this most important issue,” said Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee that wrote the legislation.

In recent years, however, the IRFFR lost ground: Funding complications meant that many sites had to be closed and staff let go. Mr. Ballard’s Jan. 19 stroke was another blow.

But the Ballards see his swift recovery as “miraculous” and the way to new and even greater opportunities to strengthen families.

“There is a God. There really is a God,” Mr. Ballard said.

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