Fathers and Sons of Northeast Ohio
Growing up as a young boy in a single-parent home, Donald Lykes lacked a strong father figure. Without a male role model, Lykes said he grew up not knowing how to be a father - or more accurately, a "dad" - and was unprepared for the responsibilities of having a child.
He soon found himself putting his sons in the same position he was once in – without an involved father.
"I was a homeless man; I had to get custody of my children," Lykes said.
After realizing the importance of being present in the lives of his children – including his six daughters – Lykes began the arduous process of cleaning up his life and navigating the court system for custody. It was during this time that he found out how difficult it can be to put all the pieces together alone.
"There was a lack of support (for single fathers)," he said. "I was one of the lucky guys. I made it through. But what I realized is that there was a lot of guys out there who, if they had the support, would go and get custody of their kids."
Newly armed with a job at a nonprofit agency, Lykes began searching out opportunities to conduct male-specific programming. He quickly discovered there was no one to advocate for the single men who wanted to regain custody of their kids.
"The passion was there, so I said, 'OK, I'll start my own organization,'" Lykes recalled. With that, Fathers and Sons of Northeast Ohio was born, and Lykes' dream to "help men become better fathers" took off.
Four years later, the organization has touched the lives of hundreds of low-income, non-custodial fathers in greater Akron and is working to break down the obstacles that prevent these men from becoming dads.
In one program, fathers meet with a mentor that guides them through the process of regaining custody of their children from the children services board. Most of these men are starting from scratch and must overcome the challenges of finding employment and housing, both of which can be achieved with the help of a mentor.
Mentors meet with clients twice a week to track their progress and help them fulfill the requirements of the protective services' case plan. Many times, this is as small as providing transportation to court appearances, visitation sessions and job interviews.
But equally important as the physical help Fathers and Sons provides is the education and emotional training it offers to single fathers. A $6,500 grant from Akron Community Foundation is helping trainers with the program conduct frequent fatherhood education classes at men's homeless shelters and drug treatment centers. The main goal of these classes is to teach single fathers how to be a positive influence in their children's lives.
"Our definition of manhood is that boys can take care of themselves, but men grow to take care of others," Lykes said. "When you start taking care of the needs of (your children), you grow into a different person."
The classes address both the financial and emotional responsibilities of being a father, lessons that Lykes said will benefit the entire community. Research shows children who have fathers present in their lives are more likely to succeed in school and less likely to be involved in gang activity or commit suicide. Girls are also less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and become pregnant.
"Having a father figure around for young girls is very important," Lykes said. "(Without a father), girls look for love in all the wrong places. When dads are there, girls have a role model – somebody they know loves them."
Lykes said the fatherhood education program covers topics ranging from the dehumanization of women to the men's own history with their fathers. In many cases, the men must forgive their fathers for past mistakes before they can become good dads for their own children. "There's a lot of healing in that," Lykes said. "We just see guys change right before our eyes."
As a single father himself for nearly 20 years, Lykes said it is especially satisfying to see men in his program reconnect with their children and step into the role of Dad.
"It's very rewarding," Lykes said. "They travel a lot of distance in a short period of time. Their whole lives have changed."
Perhaps even more exciting is the local collaboration Fathers and Sons of Northeast Ohio has helped initiate.
"Everybody is coming together and noticing that we need to help men," Lykes said. "We need to support men to be better dads in our government agencies, social service agencies, all over. We need to advocate for them."