MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Far too often, low-income fathers find themselves unable to take care of their children. Whether it’s financially, emotionally or some other reason.
Local non-profit Families Matter Inc. has partnered with the Shelby County Juvenile Court to help low-income fathers to help change that through their new program AFIRM (A Father’s Involvement Really Matters).
The free program features classes on parenting and job training and lasts about four months.
For some of these men, it’s not only the first time they’re learning what being a father looks like, it’s the first time many of them are learning how to be emotionally vulnerable and how to open themselves up to their children.
Memphis-native Jessie Davis was just 19 years old when he became a father. 10 years later, he welcomed his seventh child in the spring.
“I wanted a big family,” he said
Still, learning what it truly means to be a father is something he has had to do on his own.
"My dad was alcoholic, so some of the time when I would be with my father, he'd be drunk all the time," Davis said. "I knew then that I didn't want to be that type of father."
Still, aside from working hard to provide for his children, Davis did not know what breaking that cycle looked like. That is, until he came to AFIRM.
“You got this stigmatism that Black men — we got to be tough all the time, but being here, I learned that it's okay to be emotional with my children," he said. "It's okay to hug them; to kiss them, to tell them that I love them and to not be afraid to open up about my feelings with my children.”
AFIRM program Director Patrick Batson said their staff comes alongside these fathers to help them develop healthy parenting skills, assist with career building, help manage child support and provide them a safe space where they can admit they need help.
“Probably the hardest thing to … walk through is being expected to do something when you didn't know how, but also, 'I don't want people to know I don't know how,'” Batson said, describing the dilemma he sees so many men struggle with.
Family Matters Executive Director Carol Jackson said that equipping more and more fathers in this manner could have an immeasurable impact throughout Memphis.
“When a father is not available in their child's life, that creates an insecurity that in so many instances goes unnoticed,” Jackson said. “What I believe we're seeing on the streets of Memphis today … is the mere fact that it's not so much that children are misbehaving, it is the fact that they are hurting.”
For Davis, he says he’s gone from feeling like he didn’t deserve to be a father, to being one his children can be proud of.
"I'm a two-time college graduate," Davis said. "I don't drink, I don't smoke and I feel like I really broke the generational curse in my family because I'm providing more than just my presence with my children. I'm giving them something to aspire to.”
The first AFIRM sessions started in March and the program’s first class of fathers graduates July 6.
Jackson says the state is currently evaluating AFIRM’s progress with the goal of potentially creating others like it across Tennessee.