Credit: (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

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Robert Jones is trolling for reluctant fathers at the Hunt Place Health Center in Northeast. A sharp dresser in a black turtleneck sweater and gray herringbone pants, he stands in the waiting room among a few sullen prospects who are eyeing him up. He’s got a stack of fliers in one hand and a big, friendly smile: Jones is the car salesman of social workers. What’ll it take, he wants to know, for him to put you in one of his programs today?

“Hey, brother, you need some help?” Jones asks a guy after his pregnant girlfriend disappears into the back of the clinic. The man, probably in his early 20s, looks at him, doesn’t match Jones’ smile, and says nothing. Jones keeps going anyway. “You got some questions? ’Cause I got some answers.” The guy cracks a half-grin and takes a flier.

“Fliers are fliers,” Jones says. “And sometimes, they don’t work. You have to get in there and meet people where they are. Sometimes it takes three or four times of giving them the same information before they show up.”

Fatherhood program coordinator Daniel McRae interviews new recruits once Jones steers them his way.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

A woman struggles into the clinic, holding a baby on one arm. She tries to open up the stroller she’s lugged in on the other. A little girl of about 3 or 4 is at her side. Jones, who found a place to park himself, jumps up from his table and grabs the stroller, sets it up, and puts it down while she sits the baby inside. While helping her, he begins his spiel, detailing the services available where he works, the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative. She says she’ll tell her boyfriend about the fathering classes.

Maybe she will. But Jones, 44, has to keep moving. That’s what he does.

And he does it with a nice contribution from the federal government. In October of last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services doled out $15 million for fatherhood programs in D.C., including $2.5 million to the Healthy Family Thriving Communities Council, the umbrella group that governs Jones’ collaborative and six others like it. Most of the rest—$10 million—went to the District’s Fatherhood Initiative, which distributes funding to dozens of smaller nonprofits.

Out of more than 200 fatherhood grants nationwide, the state of California got the most money, followed by Maryland, home of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Third in line: the District of Columbia.

So why are the feds throwing all this money at D.C.’s dads? In 2004, the latest year for data, more than half (53 percent) of District children lived with families headed by a single woman. Study after study shows children living with single women are more likely to fall into poverty and crime and repeat the cycle.

As a result, fatherhood has become one of the sexier issues in the world of funding, sending agencies all over the city scrambling to beef up existing programs and add new ones aimed at getting more dads involved in their kids’ lives. There’s a small problem, though: finding the fathers.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Jones’ office at the East River collaborative in Northeast is a crowded space with a plugged-in heater blowing air off the top of a filing cabinet. He shares it with two other outreach workers. One’s talking with a client over the phone. The other’s humming along with gospel music blaring from his desktop speakers.

Wired on a cup of 7-Eleven coffee, Jones walks in and grabs some papers off his desk, where a too-small picture of him and his 15-year-old daughter, Kayla, floats in a 5-by-7 frame. “I’m out of fliers,” he says over the din. “Dan, you got any?”

Daniel McRae, the collaborative’s other fatherhood coordinator, interviews new recruits after Jones or someone else has steered them his way. In McRae’s opinion, the original purpose for fatherhood programs in D.C. was to locate low-income fathers so they could pay the city their owed child support—something he and other coordinators refused to do.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“We went to the [District] Department of Human Services and said, ‘Look, we know what you guys are doing. You’re asking us to compile all this information, locate these guys, and then send them to you so you can arrest them and do what you want to do,’ ” McRae says. “We told them, ‘We’re not going to do that. If your intention is just to locate these guys, then you have to do that yourself.’ ”

The problem was the intake form—it was too intrusive, says McRae, and it scared off potential clients. After he and his colleagues pleaded their case, the District higher-ups agreed to revise the form. Then the fatherhood coordinators were off to the races…sort of.

As programs evolved into more than just bounty hunts for deadbeat dads, actual fathers remained wary of giving up precious personal information, like where they live and their home phone numbers, making it tough for caseworkers to follow up.

Once programs found fathers, finding them jobs became the next big issue.

“Employment has always been a major impediment,” says McRae. “Most guys, particularly young guys, when they have children, if we can find them employment and get them some life skills—you’ll see they won’t run away from their obligations. When employment is not there, they say forget [the mother] and the children. That’s just how men function.”

Brian Bowling, 36, takes parenting classes that help him with his 11-year-old son, Terry, but says they’re not for everybody.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Seventeen-year-old Dexter Motley was released from jail two months ago for selling drugs and is out on parole under maximum supervision for one year. He doesn’t have a job or an apartment or a high school diploma or his GED. But he does have an 8-month-old daughter.

He wound up at the East River collaborative as a condition of his parole. “I’m just trying to get my life together,” Motley says.

Unlike many of the fathers the collaborative tries to recruit, Motley isn’t on the outs with his daughter’s mother, who’s 16 and lives with her mother in Lincoln Heights. After being referred by another social worker, the two of them started attending a relationships class. Things, he says, are going well. “I like it; it’s giving me information about the relationship, what we should do if we get upset.”

Motley’s relationship with his own father was nonexistent: “When my mother was nine months pregnant, he got locked up….He’s been gone ever since.” Now figuring out how not to be his father is a mandatory condition of Motley’s parole.

What he wants, he says, is for him, his girlfriend, and their baby to live like a family and get their own place. He’s working on his GED and hopes to get a commercial license through one of the collaborative’s training programs so he can drive trucks. He says he’d even like to learn a trade, maybe plumbing. But he’ll take what he can get.

“I don’t mind working at Foot Locker or whatever, for right now,” he says.

“When looking for men, the women can be hard,” Jones says. “I get cussed out at least three times a week.”(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Jones can relate to Motley’s story. And he’ll tell you it was his own experiences before he moved to D.C. in ’96 that led him to find his line of work, and, even more important, to be a better father to his daughter.

Jones grew up in Brooklyn and Queens with a mother he describes as a very attractive woman who didn’t know how to pick good partners. When his mother had “company,” she would lock him and his siblings up in a closet “until that nigga left.” Jones says his mother was hardly around. She had nine children by seven men; Jones never even met his father.

When he was about 8, Jones says his mother abandoned him and his siblings altogether. She left them with a woman his mother referred to as their aunt, but Jones says she was a “dope fiend” who would do whatever for his mother as long as she was provided with a steady supply of drugs.

Jones and his brothers and sisters stayed with the woman under minimal supervision. Jones soon dropped out of school in the fifth grade and began his long relationship with the law. Apprehended mostly for theft, Jones racked up almost 20 arrests by the age of 15. He would buy an item in a store but walk out with pockets full of food to share with his family.

By age 16, his run-ins with the law had become almost completely drug-related; at 18, he was in prison serving an eight-year stretch in various New York state correctional facilities for drug possession and distribution.

It was in jail that Jones, then illiterate, learned to read and write and eventually got his GED. When he got out, at 26, he enrolled in community college in Corning, N.Y. After finishing school, he wound up back in the city. One day, Jones was in Queens attending a funeral for a friend who’d been shot. That’s where he met Kayla’s mother, and after that, the two would see each other around. “It wasn’t no real relationship,” he says. “But I would go over there and hit it every now and then.”

After Kayla was born, Jones started seeking out people who could help him get his act together. He began to volunteer at a center for abandoned and abused children—many of whom were the sons and daughters of drug addicts. Jones started to understand the effects of his past behavior.

One mentor especially challenged him about the example he was setting for his daughter. “He would ask me the kind of questions that were thought-provoking,” Jones says. “He was like, ‘Do you want your child to really remember you as a gangbanger, a drug dealer, as a criminal? Is that the legacy you want your child to remember, when she speaks of her dad?—Oh my father used to sell drugs on 145th Street….It was an eye-opener.”

He’s giving back what he got. But helping fathers, when they let him, is bittersweet. “I’m fighting with these guys to be involved with their kids who are three minutes away. My kid is 10 hours away.”(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Around midday in Ward 7, Jones makes a stop at an unlikely spot to find fathers—Kelly Miller Middle School. It’s part of his routine; he checks in at the school about three times a week to meet up with his volunteer group: the Watchdogs. The dads in this group—sometimes two or three, but no more than four—wear Watchdogs T-shirts and ball caps. They’re at the school to stand guard at the doors of the middle school’s lunchroom and control the flow of traffic.

When Jones stops in the main office, he spies a man coming through the front doors of the school and doesn’t hesitate to pounce. It turns out the man’s at school because his kid was acting up in class. Jones quickly turns this kid’s misfortune into his own gain by recruiting the father for the Watchdogs.

The program is an attempt to get fathers more involved at their children’s schools. But it’s only slowly catching on. Jones started the pilot at Kelly Miller at the end of the last school year. There are now a total of 10 dads volunteering at a school with more than 400 students.

Michael Adams, one of the more dependable dads, knows why. He says it’s hard to get the men to come out because of their schedules during the week. And then, bonding activities—zoo trips, ice skating—are held on Saturdays, when it’s tough to get guys to commit. An electrician for area Wachovia banks, Adams’ schedule is flexible; he can pop in during his lunch break a couple of times a week.

“If we were to change this to a mother program, then we would be full,” he says. “We had mothers we had to turn down because that’s not our focus. Our focus is the dads.”

Jones agrees. Sometimes the mothers are more than just eager to take part—they can get downright hostile when he tells them no.Talking to them to get to the fathers is a strategy Jones uses, but he says it can backfire.

“When looking for men, the women can be hard,” Jones says. “They’re like, ‘Fuck him. Can I get down?’ I get cussed out at least three times a week.” But he says he makes a point of telling the women that no matter how good they are, they can’t be the mother and father, too.

“You cannot raise a man,” he says he tells them. “You don’t know what it is to walk with nuts.”

Mothers aren’t the only ones with gripes. Brian Bowling, a 36-year-old father of three, is taking parenting classes but says they’re only part of what it will take to solve D.C.’s fatherhood problem. “Much as this…program is here, it ain’t for us; it’s for politicians to say they’re doing something,” he says. “Get the most out of this program you can, but you can’t get everything.”

He says the classes and peer groups are sometimes helpful—they provide solutions when Bowling gets “stuck” and doesn’t know which way he should go as a parent. But as a “functioning addict” since the sixth grade, the roots of his issues run deeper and require more than a short-term fix. “If they really want to do something, mental health is a big issue,” Bowling says.

Right now, for Jones, the issue continues to be finding prospects for his programs. The Hunt Place Health Center off Minnesota Avenue is one of his favorite spots. He looks for fathers there, but he also hopes to find couples he can sign up for his eight-week marriage-training course. Wednesday is prenatal day at the clinic, and Jones’ thinking is if he can introduce a couple to the collaborative’s resources while their baby is still in gestation, he believes the father will be better equipped to handle the challenges of fatherhood and more likely to stick around once the baby is born.

As Jones makes his way inside, a white ’90s model Lincoln is pulling off, and the driver honks the horn to get Jones’ attention before he heads into the clinic. This is the kind of potential client that makes his mouth water. The man in the Lincoln has been out of jail for a year, already has one baby with his fiancée, and has another on the way. Jones met him the previous week when the guy waited in the lobby during his fiancée’s checkup. Back today, the man wants to know when is the last day to sign up for marital training.

It’s a possible success story, but Jones needs more. He can find the fathers, he can give his spiel, and they can listen, but what he can’t do is the very essence of why the fatherhood programs are needed: He can’t force them to follow through. So Jones’ approach, to some extent, is to rely on chance and persistence. By being out of the office and in the community, in places where fathers might be, he hopes for more than one chance to sell them on the program.

And hanging around the clinic seems to work. That’s where Jones met up with Alonzo Campbell. Campbell and Jones initially met a few years ago, but the two ran into each other recently at the Hunt Place clinic and got reacquainted. Jones told Campbell about a parenting class and a housing savings plan. Jones also recruited him to join the Watchdogs.

A father of eight children with ages ranging from 3 months to 16 years, Campbell says he only recently found himself in need of more fathering skills when his wife had a stroke. Campbell says his wife handled all of the family’s bills and took care of the household. Now, he says, her mind is bad, so he’s been forced to become the sole caretaker for himself, his wife, and their children.

Jones has helped mostly by just being there, Campbell says. “He calls sometimes and keeps in touch, he gives me advice, and he’s not charging me for it,” Campbell says. “I ain’t got to come out of my pocket for the advice he gives me, but it’s worth a lot.”

Jones says he’s giving back what he got. He earned his education, cleaned up, and got a good job. And now he’s counseling absentee fathers the same way his mentors advised him. But helping the fathers, when they let him, is bittersweet.

Jones is fighting a tough battle for custody of his daughter, who lives with her mother in Monk’s Corner, N.C. Jones pays the required support, plus more, he says. He drives there twice a month, picks Kayla up, brings her to D.C., and then drives her home again in the course of a weekend. When his daughter’s school needs to talk to a parent, he gets a call on his cell.

“I would give my left nut to have custody of my daughter,” Jones says. “I’m fighting with these guys to be involved with their kids who are three minutes away. My kid is 10 hours away.”

But Jones says he gets it. “They have so much financial stress on them, so I understand it. A lot of the jobs they have are not the kind of jobs that are tolerable, so you really want to place yourself in a position of understanding….I don’t expect anybody to ring any bells just because I’m being a father,” he says. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.” Robert Jones is trolling for reluctant fathers at the Hunt Place Health Center in Northeast. A sharp dresser in a black turtleneck sweater and gray herringbone pants, he stands in the waiting room among a few sullen prospects who are eyeing him up. He’s got a stack of fliers in one hand and a big, friendly smile: Jones is the car salesman of social workers. What’ll it take, he wants to know, for him to put you in one of his programs today?

“Hey, brother, you need some help?” Jones asks a guy after his pregnant girlfriend disappears into the back of the clinic. The man, probably in his early 20s, looks at him, doesn’t match Jones’ smile, and says nothing. Jones keeps going anyway. “You got some questions? ’Cause I got some answers.” The guy cracks a half-grin and takes a flier.

“Fliers are fliers,” Jones says. “And sometimes, they don’t work. You have to get in there and meet

people where they are. Sometimes it takes three or four times of giving them the same information before they show up.”

A woman struggles into the clinic, holding a baby on one arm. She tries to open up the stroller she’s lugged in on the other. A little girl of about 3 or 4 is at her side. Jones, who found a place to park himself, jumps up from his table and grabs the stroller, sets it up, and puts it down while she sits the baby inside. While helping her, he begins his spiel, detailing the services available where he works, the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative. She says she’ll tell her boyfriend about the fathering classes.

Maybe she will. But Jones, 44, has to keep moving. That’s what he does.

And he does it with a nice contribution from the federal government. In October of last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services doled out $15 million for fatherhood programs in D.C., including $2.5 million to the Healthy Family Thriving Communities Council, the umbrella group that governs Jones’ collaborative and six others like it. Most of the rest—$10 million—went to the District’s Fatherhood Initiative, which distributes funding to dozens of smaller nonprofits.

Out of more than 200 fatherhood grants nationwide, the state of California got the most money, followed by Maryland, home of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Third in line: the District of Columbia.

So why are the feds throwing all this money at D.C.’s dads? In 2004, the latest year for data, more than half (53 percent) of District children lived with families headed by a single woman. Study after study shows children living with single women are more likely to fall into poverty and crime and repeat the cycle.

As a result, fatherhood has become one of the sexier issues in the world of funding, sending agencies all over the city scrambling to beef up existing programs and add new ones aimed at getting more dads involved in their kids’ lives. There’s a small problem, though: finding the fathers.

Jones’ office at the East River collaborative in Northeast is a crowded space with a plugged-in heater blowing air off the top of a filing cabinet. He shares it with two other outreach workers. One’s talking with a client over the phone. The other’s humming along with gospel music blaring from his desktop speakers.

Wired on a cup of 7-Eleven coffee, Jones walks in and grabs some papers off his desk, where a too-small picture of him and his 15-year-old daughter, Kayla, floats in a 5-by-7 frame. “I’m out of fliers,” he says over the din. “Dan, you got any?”

Daniel McRae, the collaborative’s other fatherhood coordinator, interviews new recruits after Jones or someone else has steered them his way. In McRae’s opinion, the original purpose for fatherhood programs in D.C. was to locate low-income fathers so they could pay the city their owed child support—something he and other coordinators refused to do.

“We went to the [District] Department of Human Services and said, ‘Look, we know what you guys are doing. You’re asking us to compile all this information, locate these guys, and then send them to you so you can arrest them and do what you want to do,’ ” McRae says. “We told them, ‘We’re not going to do that. If your intention is just to locate these guys, then you have to do that yourself.’ ”

The problem was the intake form—it was too intrusive, says McRae, and it scared off potential clients. After he and his colleagues pleaded their case, the District higher-ups agreed to revise the form. Then the fatherhood coordinators were off to the races…sort of.

As programs evolved into more than just bounty hunts for deadbeat dads, actual fathers remained wary of giving up precious personal information, like where they live and their home phone numbers, making it tough for caseworkers to follow up.

Once programs found fathers, finding them jobs became the next big issue.

“Employment has always been a major impediment,” says McRae. “Most guys, particularly young guys, when they have children, if we can find them employment and get them some life skills—you’ll see they won’t run away from their obligations. When employment is not there, they say forget [the mother] and the children. That’s just how men function.”

Seventeen-year-old Dexter Motley was released from jail two months ago for selling drugs and is out on parole under maximum supervision for one year. He doesn’t have a job or an apartment or a high school diploma or his GED. But he does have an 8-month-old daughter.

He wound up at the East River collaborative as a condition of his parole. “I’m just trying to get my life together,” Motley says.

Unlike many of the fathers the collaborative tries to recruit, Motley isn’t on the outs with his daughter’s mother, who’s 16 and lives with her mother in Lincoln Heights. After being referred by another social worker, the two of them started attending a relationships class. Things, he says, are going well. “I like it; it’s giving me information about the relationship, what we should do if we get upset.”

Motley’s relationship with his own father was nonexistent: “When my mother was nine months pregnant, he got locked up….He’s been gone ever since.” Now figuring out how not to be his father is a mandatory condition of Motley’s parole.

What he wants, he says, is for him, his girlfriend, and their baby to live like a family and get their own place. He’s working on his GED and hopes to get a commercial license through one of the collaborative’s training programs so he can drive trucks. He says he’d even like to learn a trade, maybe plumbing. But he’ll take what he can get.

“I don’t mind working at Foot Locker or whatever, for right now,” he says.

Jones can relate to Motley’s story. And he’ll tell you it was his own experiences before he moved to D.C. in ’96 that led him to find his line of work, and, even more important, to be a better father to his daughter.

Jones grew up in Brooklyn and Queens with a mother he describes as a very attractive woman who didn’t know how to pick good partners. When his mother had “company,” she would lock him and his siblings up in a closet “until that nigga left.” Jones says his mother was hardly around. She had nine children by seven men; Jones never even met his father.

When he was about 8, Jones says his mother abandoned him and his siblings altogether. She left them with a woman his mother referred to as their aunt, but Jones says she was a “dope fiend” who would do whatever for his mother as long as she was provided with a steady supply of drugs.

Jones and his brothers and sisters stayed with the woman under minimal supervision. Jones soon dropped out of school in the fifth grade and began his long relationship with the law. Apprehended mostly for theft, Jones racked up almost 20 arrests by the age of 15. He would buy an item in a store but walk out with pockets full of food to share with his family.

By age 16, his run-ins with the law had become almost completely drug-related; at 18, he was in prison serving an eight-year stretch for drug possession and distribution.

It was in jail that Jones, then illiterate, learned to read and write and eventually got his GED. When he got out, at 26, he enrolled at Corning Community College in upstate New York. After finishing school, he wound up back in the city. One day, Jones was in Queens attending a funeral for a friend who’d been shot. That’s where he met Kayla’s mother, and after that, the two would see each other around. “It wasn’t no real relationship,” he says. “But I would go over there and hit it every now and then.”

After Kayla was born, Jones started seeking out people who could help him get his act together. He began to volunteer at a center for abandoned and abused children—many of whom were the sons and daughters of drug addicts. Jones started to understand the effects of his past behavior.

One mentor especially challenged him about the example he was setting for his daughter. “He would ask me the kind of questions that were thought-provoking,” Jones says. “He was like, ‘Do you want your child to really remember you as a gangbanger, a drug dealer, as a criminal? Is that the legacy you want your child to remember, when she speaks of her dad?—Oh my father used to sell drugs on 145th Street….It was an eye-opener.”

Around midday in Ward 7, Jones makes a stop at an unlikely spot to find fathers—Kelly Miller Middle School. It’s part of his routine; he checks in at the school about three times a week to meet up with his volunteer group: the Watchdogs. The dads in this group—sometimes two or three, but no more than four—wear Watchdogs T-shirts and ball caps. They’re at the school to stand guard at the doors of the middle school’s lunchroom and control the flow of traffic.

When Jones stops in the main office, he spies a man coming through the front doors of the school and doesn’t hesitate to pounce. It turns out the man’s at school because his kid was acting up in class. Jones quickly turns this kid’s misfortune into his own gain by recruiting the father for the Watchdogs.

The program is an attempt to get fathers more involved at their children’s schools. But it’s only slowly catching on. Jones started the pilot at Kelly Miller at the end of the last school year. There are now a total of 10 dads volunteering at a school with more than 400 students.

Michael Adams, one of the more dependable dads, knows why. He says it’s hard to get the men to come out because of their schedules during the week. And then, bonding activities—zoo trips, ice skating—are held on Saturdays, when it’s tough to get guys to commit. An electrician for area Wachovia banks, Adams’ schedule is flexible; he can pop in during his lunch break a couple of times a week.

“If we were to change this to a mother program, then we would be full,” he says. “We had mothers we had to turn down because that’s not our focus. Our focus is the dads.”

Jones agrees. Sometimes the mothers are more than just eager to take part—they can get downright hostile when he tells them no.Talking to them to get to the fathers is a strategy Jones uses, but he says it can backfire.

“When looking for men, the women can be hard,” Jones says. “They’re like, ‘Fuck him. Can I get down?’ I get cussed out at least three times a week.” But he says he makes a point of telling the women that no matter how good they are, they can’t be the mother and father, too.

“You cannot raise a man,” he says he tells them. “You don’t know what it is to walk with nuts.”

Mothers aren’t the only ones with gripes. Brian Bowling, a 36-year-old father of three, is taking parenting classes but says they’re only part of what it will take to solve D.C.’s fatherhood problem. “Much as this…program is here, it ain’t for us; it’s for politicians to say they’re doing something,” he says. “Get the most out of this program you can, but you can’t get everything.”

He says the classes and peer groups are sometimes helpful—they provide solutions when Bowling gets “stuck” and doesn’t know which way he should go as a parent. But as a “functioning addict” since the sixth grade, the roots of his issues run deeper and require more than a short-term fix. “If they really want to do something, mental health is a big issue,” Bowling says.

Right now, for Jones, the issue continues to be finding prospects for his programs. The Hunt Place Health Center off Minnesota Avenue is one of his favorite spots. He looks for fathers there, but he also hopes to find couples he can sign up for his eight-week marriage-training course. Wednesday is prenatal day at the clinic, and Jones’ thinking is if he can introduce a couple to the collaborative’s resources while their baby is still in gestation, he believes the father will be better equipped to handle the challenges of fatherhood and more likely to stick around once the baby is born.

As Jones makes his way inside, a white ’90s model Lincoln is pulling off, and the driver honks the horn to get Jones’ attention before he heads into the clinic. This is the kind of potential client that makes his mouth water. The man in the Lincoln has been out of jail for a year, already has one baby with his fiancée, and has another on the way. Jones met him the previous week when the guy waited in the lobby during his fiancée’s checkup. Back today, the man wants to know when is the last day to sign up for marital training.

It’s a possible success story, but Jones needs more. He can find the fathers, he can give his spiel, and they can listen, but what he can’t do is the very essence of why the fatherhood programs are needed: He can’t force them to follow through. So Jones’ approach, to some extent, is to rely on chance and persistence. By being out of the office and in the community, in places where fathers might be, he hopes for more than one chance to sell them on the program.

And hanging around the clinic seems to work. That’s where Jones met up with Alonzo Campbell. Campbell and Jones initially met a few years ago, but the two ran into each other recently at the Hunt Place clinic and got reacquainted. Jones told Campbell about a parenting class and a housing savings plan. Jones also recruited him to join the Watchdogs.

A father of eight children with ages ranging from 3 months to 16 years, Campbell says he only recently found himself in need of more fathering skills when his wife had a stroke. Campbell says his wife handled all of the family’s bills and took care of the household. Now, he says, her mind is bad, so he’s been forced to become the sole caretaker for himself, his wife, and their children.

Jones has helped mostly by just being there, Campbell says. “He calls sometimes and keeps in touch, he gives me advice, and he’s not charging me for it,” Campbell says. “I ain’t got to come out of my pocket for the advice he gives me, but it’s worth a lot.”

Jones says he’s giving back what he got. He earned his education, cleaned up, and got a good job. And now he’s counseling absentee fathers the same way his mentors advised him. But helping the fathers, when they let him, is bittersweet.

Jones is fighting a tough battle for custody of his daughter, who lives with her mother in Monk’s Corner, N.C. Jones pays the required support, plus more, he says. He drives there twice a month, picks Kayla up, brings her to D.C., and then drives her home again in the course of a weekend. When his daughter’s school needs to talk to a parent, he gets a call on his cell.

“I would give my left nut to have custody of my daughter,” Jones says. “I’m fighting with these guys to be involved with their kids who are three minutes away. My kid is 10 hours away.”

But Jones says he gets it. “They have so much financial stress on them, so I understand it. A lot of the jobs they have are not the kind of jobs that are tolerable, so you really want to place yourself in a position of understanding….I don’t expect anybody to ring any bells just because I’m being a father,” he says. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”