Stories

Fatherhood Initiative Helps Dad Build Bond That Lasts

Michael, 59, and his 17-month-old son, Anthony, are inseparable. When Michael goes to work cutting hair at a barbershop in East Akron, Anthony comes with him.

“My job is to keep Anthony protected, by all means necessary,” says Michael. “I don’t allow myself to get sidetracked from what my job and my duty is, with him.”

Despite being such a devoted dad, Michael never had a relationship with his own father. Though his mother did her best with what she had, Michael’s childhood was marked by turbulence, and as he grew up, that turbulence followed him into adulthood. By his final release from prison in 2011, Michael had spent more than half of his life behind bars.

It was during that last, six-year stint at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, however, that Michael realized he needed to change his life. He completed a vocational training program, which allowed him to get work as a barber upon his release.

But for Michael, the turbulence was not yet over. In late 2014, he received a call from the hospital telling him that he had a newborn son, Anthony. Throughout her pregnancy, Anthony’s mother had struggled with addiction to heroin and cocaine, and when he was born, Anthony was placed first into neonatal intensive care and then into a foster home. Knowing he had a responsibility to Anthony, Michael fought to get custody of his son.

That process involved attending classes through the Summit County Fatherhood Initiative. The initiative, of which United Way is a key partner and fiscal sponsor, helps at-risk fathers develop healthy relationships with their children. For Michael, who had never raised a child on his own before, the classes were a source of guidance and support.

Eventually, recognizing his hard work and commitment, the courts granted Michael full custody of Anthony. Faced with the prospect of taking care of an infant son in his late 50s, Michael admits that part of him worried that his life was over.

No, the judge told him, his life had just begun.

Today, Anthony is as playful and rambunctious as any toddler, and though his bedroom in the small apartment he shares with his father is filled with toys, he is always trying to get into trouble. Yet Michael watches over him with the patience of a saint. His biggest fear is knowing that, because of his age, he may not always be around to take care of Anthony.

Last year, Michael received the Public Children Services Association of Ohio’s Family of the Year Award. Michael gives back to the people that helped him by speaking to classes through the Summit County Fatherhood Initiative.

During these speaking engagements, Anthony, as always, is at his side.

Infants of highly involved fathers show higher degrees of cognitive competence, and adolescents who strongly identify with their fathers are 80 percent less likely to become incarcerated. By partnering with projects like the Summit County Fatherhood Initiative, United Way is making sure that every child has a stable, loving and supportive family.