Nonprofit teaches men how to be good fathers
By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published April 9, 2007
TAMPA - Optician Jimmie Gray fixes people's vision but couldn't do much, he says, about his own lack of foresight. He did everything a separated and divorced father shouldn't do, even landing himself in jail.
His estranged wife says he still owes child support.
So it might seem odd that Gray is running a program aimed at helping black men be better dads.
But the 56-year-old Tampa man says he, more than most, knows what's at stake.
"I don't tell people to do as I do or do as I've done," he said.
Gray learned how to be a father from the outside looking in, without custody. He negotiated his way, sometimes crudely, into his children's lives. Now he wants other black fathers to learn from his errors.
"It's like self-medication for myself," he said.
He started a Tampa nonprofit called Fatherhood Assistance, Lifestyle & Legal Services, got $9,000 in city funding, and enlisted speakers from the judicial system, YMCA and the University of South Florida to educate black fathers over six weeks.
Gray says he's not paid for the program, which is a ministry of his church, Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist.
The issues of fatherhood and domestic violence are huge for black men. Nationally, more than two-thirds of black children are born to unmarried parents, and domestic violence rates among blacks are twice as high as most other races.
That wasn't evident from attendance at one of Gray's recent seminars, where a speaker from USF's Institute on Black Life talked about anger management.
Gray had put out chips, cookies and soda in a conference room at the Loretta Ingraham Recreational Complex in the mostly black Carver City-Lincoln Gardens neighborhood.
The audience consisted of five neighborhood children.
Not their fathers.
"They don't come," Gray said.
If they came, they would hear his regrets. His life is full of examples of what not to do, he said.
He should have signed a prenuptial agreement with his wife. He never should have tried to barge into the front door of her home. He shouldn't have yelled at a judge when he didn't like a child support order.
If they came, he could trot out scenarios fathers confront, involving boyfriends and girlfriends and exes and other children and grandparents and jail and jealousy.
"Let's talk about these things before they happen," Gray said.
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He started decades ago trying to help dads. He keeps old news clippings in which he is pictured with mayors and even Gov. Lawton Chiles during press conferences heralding grants.
But away from the public eye, he was steadily entangled in domestic disputes. He was arrested more than 10 times, held on charges of domestic violence battery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, burglary and marijuana possession.
Nearly all of the charges were dropped, including those from September, when he and his wife were both arrested after a domestic dispute.
He said he doesn't counsel men but refers them to programs that can help. He invites credible authorities to speak.
He sits in the corner during sessions and rarely interjects.
He wants to show men legal ways to deal with domestic disputes, he said.
"It's very hard to do," he said. "As you can see, I've been arrested many times."
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From East Tampa to the Carver City-Lincoln Gardens neighborhood, they can be seen: Men who stand on street corners, the sidelines of their children's lives.
"This is a serious problem," said Don Foy, president of the Jacksonville chapter of MAD DADS, a group that promotes father involvement.
"We have to stimulate them, we have to get them to step forward and start being role models so our youth see people other than the pimps, the pushers, the drug dealers."
Oliver Williams, a social work professor and executive director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community at the University of Minnesota, said there is a "crisis of fatherhood" among blacks.
He said programs like Gray's can help. But he cautions that they shouldn't be borne of anger and frustration.
The groups need to acknowledge the issue of abusive fathers, Williams said. Mothers need to be valued, regardless of how bad a relationship may be.
And if men who lead these groups have histories of domestic violence, they need to show they've changed.
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Maxine Gray has been separated on and off from Jimmie Gray for about eight years.
She claims he is abusive and owes her several thousand dollars in child support.
"From my point of view," Maxine Gray, 50, said, "there's nothing different."
Jimmie Gray said he owes about $3,000. He would owe less, he said, if the courts counted the cash he gives Maxine in the presence of their daughter. He wants his daughter to see proof that he's contributing.
"It's not the way the court system wants to do it," Gray said, "but it's a determination I made in order to see my kids."
He said he has changed his behavior and lifestyle.
Inside his small West Tampa shop, where eyeglass frames hang on the wall near a photo of Nelson Mandela, he keeps photos of his children.
There's one of his second son, Joshua, in cap and gown, graduating with his master's degree; another of his youngest daughter, Nancy, on a bookmark that talks about helping the world by helping a child.
He said he doesn't react now when he's angry. He doesn't carry grudges. He doesn't dwell on failures. He tries to think ahead.
"The devil will tell you to burn the house down," he said, "to sneak up in the dark when they're taking out the trash and hit them with a brick."
He calls himself an activist-soldier, bound to get wounded in battles.
He said he's a work in progress, always trying to be a better father and man.
Don't judge his program by him, he said.
Judge it by what he hopes to become.Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or email@example.com.
If you go
The final installment of the Responsible Fatherhood Workshops takes place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Loretta Ingraham Center, 1611 N Hubert St., Tampa.