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Program seeks to help fathers connect with their children

By By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
May 26, 2003
The Rev. Bill Harper of Meridian is director of the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, a program designed to train, educate, encourage and assist fathers to become more involved in their child's life.
The program, sponsored by the Multi-County Community Service Agency Inc., offers workshops, offers seminars and refers clients to various programs within a nine-county area: Lauderdale, Newton, Leake, Greene, Jasper, Kemper, Wayne, Scott and Smith.
The program is funded by the Mississippi Department of Human Services Division of Community Services.
Harper, 50, has served as pastor of the Savannah Grove Missionary Baptist Church for six years. He has been a minister for 29 years. He discussed the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: What is the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative?
Bill Harper: The Multi-County Community Service Agency has several programs that identify the needs of people. The Responsible Fatherhood Initiative is one of those programs.
Its design is to train, educate, encourage and assist fathers in becoming knowledgeable of and assuming responsibility for the nurturing growth and the developmental needs of their children.
In essence, it's an organized attack against dysfunctional fathers.
The Star: What is a dysfunctional father?
Harper: A deadbeat dad. We have some men who simply share in the conception of a child and keep going. There are some the child knows, but because of marital discord or disagreements the child gets caught in the middle. There are some with certain circumstances lack of work, alcoholism, other substance abuse, some neurotic behavior something that keeps him from being a vital part of the child's life.
The Star: What prevents fathers from being involved with their children, and how do you work with them?
Harper: First of all, we don't believe there is any excuse for a man not taking care of his child or children. But there are circumstances we seek to change.
We put them in GED programs, find employment for them. We refer them to Family First, which is a program under Multi-County that has job training classes. We have seminars, workshops, and individual and group sessions.
We have clients who sign up in the program, and then we have a case management style where we use tracking forms, we take notes on them, we identify their needs, and talk to them on a regular basis.
The Star: What is the purpose of scheduling a family fun day?
Harper: Sunday, June 1, is National Fatherhood Day, and our plan is to promote interaction between fathers and their families with the Lauderdale County Father and Family Fun Day.
It will be at Bonita Lakes with free food and drinks, gospel choirs, jazz music, games, activities just a fun day. And we're asking everybody from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. to come and get all the food you want. The ticket is you have to have a daddy with you.
The Star: What interested you in working with the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative?
Harper: I met my dad when I was 25 years old. I've experienced fatherlessness. I know what physical absence means. I know what spiritual absence is, psychological absence, as well as emotional absence. I've experienced all four.
I was a classroom clown all because I wanted my dad's attention. I wanted my daddy.
I never finished high school. I wasn't very proud of the way I looked, and I didn't have a dad. It took me more than 20 years to discover I didn't have to be a failure because I didn't have a dad and I didn't have to be a clown.
The Star: Do more children grow up without fathers in the black community than the white community?
Harper: No. This crosses geographical boundaries and racial boundaries. There are just men white and black who are not responsible fathers.
The Star: Do you think the problem comes from a long chain of fatherlessness?
Harper: Yes, and this program says to men "Let's cut it off." What your father didn't like in his dad, his children didn't like in him. What you don't like in your father, more than likely your children don't like in you.
If you didn't provide and protect for your children, chances are great that they won't provide and protect for their own. There are certainly great exceptions, and we're glad. But someone has to cut it off.
The Star: How do you stop these kids from emulating their do-nothing father, their absent father or their drug father?
Harper: I wouldn't have made it if it hadn't been for mentors. But the fact remains that the greatest role model for a child is his dad and no one can take the place of a dad.
So what we have to do is focus on fathers, not necessarily children.
I'm a mentor to children, and I hope I can continue to be. But the key is to appeal to that father to cut it off. Some father in that chain of behavior has to cut it off and express love and attention for that child.
The Star: How is the Lauderdale County Father and Family Fun Day going to solve this problem?
Harper: People have to be attracted. Satan himself lures us by beautiful things. By the same token, on the good side of life we can win people by beautiful things and right things.
Jesus attracted folks by his love. I think when we give free food and promote fellowship, maybe some father there will say, "We need to continue this."
We're not so naive to think we're going to have a great big family fun day and then our fatherlessness plague is going to stop immediately. But it might provoke interaction between fathers and their children. It's not a quick fix.
There are some fathers who are there physically. They are paying the utilities, the mortgage, they are buying clothes and they would be considered by most to be good providers. But they are absent emotionally. They don't affirm their children because maybe they don't know how.
There are some men who never heard their dad say, "I love you." Some men are there physically, psychologically and emotionally, but spiritually they are not there. If a man is not connected to his creator he does not know how to be a real father. We have to be good men before we can be good fathers.

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