When Lavelle Shaffer’s first son was born in August 2015, the young West Chicago native was struggling. He became homeless earlier that year after a dispute with family and had only recently found an apartment to call home.
Those first few days, Lavelle stayed by his partner’s side night in and night out, the first display of the care and commitment he has made to his children ever since. “We were trying to figure our stuff out, but we were living on our own for the first time,” Lavelle said.
While he and his partner bonded over Noah’s birth, a caseworker visiting the new parents offered Lavelle, now 26, another bond in his life – a “brotherhood” of young fathers also seeking guidance on life and parenthood.
Since opening its doors in 2002, the Gerst Family Young Fathers Program hosted by Metropolitan Family Services, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner, has helped men across Chicago become employed and financially independent and to raise healthy children. The long-term, comprehensive program offers an array of services and takes a holistic approach to address the fathers’ needs.
“A lot of people have the idea that these guys are deadbeats or don’t want to do for their children,” MFS case manager Nathan Wright said of the fathers, some of whom are ex-offenders. “One of the things we’re doing is getting these guys off the streets and giving them a chance to show their worth to their families, to the mother’s family and to their community. Now, they feel so good about themselves.”
Upon their enrollment in the program, fathers commit to intensive training that teaches them how to craft a resume, prepare for interviews, utilize common computer programs and conduct job searches. They’re then supplied with a suit, bus fare and other essentials, like a trip to the barber for a haircut and shave, to prepare them to find a living wage position with benefits.
Young Fathers’ job-placement rate sits at a remarkable 97 percent of participants, with fathers securing jobs at local hospitals, stores, museums, businesses and security companies, as well as the Chicago Transportation Authority and the City of Chicago. “From day one, it’s been great for me,” said Felix Dotson, a six-year participant of the program and father to a 12-year-old daughter. “It was hard before, putting the bills on my significant other and taking care of my baby. It made me feel so good to accomplish something.”
After three years of unemployment following the recession, Felix, 36, went through the job-training program. The Bronzeville father now works in bus service maintenance for the CTA, where he recently earned a promotion, an advancement he excitedly welcomed.
In addition to the workforce training, fathers are also offered a range of additional services, including workshops on positive parenting, healthy relationships with co-parents, stress management, domestic violence prevention and parental rights. Nathan and MFS also help the men secure stable housing – even covering certain fees associated with moving and finding them furniture – and provide necessities for their kids, like strollers and diapers. “It’s a partnership. You make a step, I make a step,” Nathan said of his dynamic with the fathers.
Though the program goes above and beyond to invest in the men, both Lavelle and Felix acknowledge it takes strong commitment from the fathers to make the most of what’s being offered. “Young Fathers helps you if you help yourself,” Felix said. “There’s only so much they can do to help you. They can’t come in and hold your hand in an interview and make you say the right things. It’s what you put into it.”
Having completed many of the trainings, Lavelle mostly utilizes the program for counseling services and mentorship from Nathan and other members. Though he’s balancing parenthood with work and preparing for his entrance exams for the Chicago Police Academy, while currently living in a shelter apartment due to water damage in his own home – Lavelle’s found a support system to tackle the challenges he’s facing.
“I took the positives I learned from my father and learned the rest from Young Fathers,” Lavelle said. “I was soaking it in. The more opportunities I learned about, I took it in and made myself a better father.”
In addition to desiring a living wage and benefits to support his family, Lavelle aims to turn Nathan’s investment into a lifeline for his neighbors and others in the world. As a police officer, Lavelle seeks to enhance community relations and help connect people to social services and mentors, like the fathers’ program.
Felix, who was first introduced to program by a friend, also hopes to pay it forward. He seeks out other fathers who are struggling to find work and encourages them to join the program. “If you wanna change for yourself, this program will help you,” Felix said. “You never know about your job or whether you’ll have family problems, but you always have the Young Fathers program to go back to.”
While securing life’s necessities is the program’s focal point, it also prioritizes the need for family fun and connection. The program’s coordinators host annual family outings, like zoo tours and picnics, for the participants, their significant others and children to enjoy. On Thursday, the Young Fathers program hosted their annual banquet and invited the men and their families for a meal and celebration of their accomplishments.
Sitting at his first banquet in 2016, Lavelle turned over his program to find he’d been awarded Father of the Year and a $1,000 scholarship for his son, an acknowledgement that still brings a smile to his face two years later.
“I was in school, working two part-time jobs,” Lavelle reminisced. “They were all smiling at me. That felt good to be acknowledged, even if it was for something I should be doing.”
Last week, sitting in Grant Park on a warm evening, Lavelle exuded excitement for the next night’s festivities. It would be the first time he and his fiancé would have a night out without the kids, and he couldn’t wait to put his suit on again.