Mark Seymore grew up in a neighborhood that police have labeled as one of the highest crime areas in the region, around Page and Goodfellow boulevards in North St. Louis.
“There wasn’t a lot of role models or anything positive to follow,” Seymore said. “It was extremely rough for me because it seems like all the easy routes were the routes I was trying to avoid.”
But he has always prided himself on having the courage to go his own way and stay out of trouble. Life was a struggle for his single mother to raise his three brothers, sister and him, he said.
“We went without lights and water sometimes,” he said. “I know she struggled to put food on the table and clothes on our back. So that right there kind of gives you some ambition to want to change something.”
Seymore found out about the Fathers Support Center at a critical point in his life. He and his “future wife,” as he calls her, were raising their two sons – then 1 and 3 – in a rundown place in
North St. Louis.
“It was real bad,” he said. “It probably should have been condemned, but that’s all we had. I was paying $275 a month, but with the job I had that was hard for me to do. I was making $32 a day, so it was a struggle. That was an extra kick for me to come here, and I did.”
He heard his mother talking to one of her friends on the phone. A young man was asking her for financial help, and she recommended that he come to the Fathers Support Center.
“After I was done eavesdropping, I started asking questions,” he said. “I was curious because I needed some assistance as well. I found a number and called and got myself enrolled.”
The men who enter the center’s Responsible Fatherhood Project commit to a six-week, full-day program, where they are taught a variety of parenting and life skills. Included in the curriculum are nutritional and financial literacy, mock interviews for employment opportunities, and family bonding experiences. During the final two weeks, clients are required to wear business attire to prepare them for employment opportunities.
“The number one thing that the men and others are facing is an economic problem,” said Halbert Sullivan, founding president and CEO of the Fathers Support Center. “To solve an economic problem, that starts off with a job. If a guy is having a time with a child and he can’t buy ice cream or cookies, he’s going to soon stop coming around. Because men want to do things; they want to fix stuff.”
Sullivan – a former drug addict who cleaned himself up and went on to earn a master’s of social work from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University – founded Fathers Support Center in 1997. Its primary mission is to promote fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives through intensive job training, group therapy, community service and parenting workshops.
“The dad is very important to the child’s psychological and emotional development,” Sullivan said. “If we could draw the dad’s strength and involvement, then we could get rid of a lot of issues that our youth are facing today, and we’d help to break the cycle of poverty.”
Since 1997, it has served over 14,000 fathers, with over 97 percent of them being African-American males. “It is our vision that every father can be a responsible father committed to a cohesive family relationship,” Sullivan said.
Seymore completed the Responsible Fatherhood program about a year and a half ago. He currently works at LMI Aerospace as a sheet metal assembler and mechanic – earning twice what he did when he entered the program.
Like many of the fathers who walk in the door, Seymore was not earning what he was worth, said Lynn Vaden, the program’s facilitator and account manager.
“Mark had all the tools to be successful,” Vaden said. “He just needed someone to point him in the right direction. He was working, and he was providing for his family and, for him, that was okay. But based on what he had to offer and the value of that, it wasn’t okay.”
Vaden said that he had to convince Seymore, like many others, to give up the fear of leaving something less to take the opportunity to gain something more.
“I tell every person that comes into the room, ‘You have everything inside of you that you need to be successful,’” Vaden said. “Our challenge is to find out what it is.”
Growing is one of the important factors at the center, Seymore said, and he learned how to make realistic goals and go after them.
“Challenge yourself,” Seymore advised other fathers who may inquire about joining the Fathers Support Center.
“If you’re constantly in your comfort zone, there’s no room for growth. Stepping out of your comfort zone to come here is the first step. Doing something different, you get different results. I’ll push the fact that they give great help.”
Sean Joe – Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, who is co-editing the Homegrown Black Males series in The American as part of the Brown School’s Homegrown STL initiative – sees Fathers Support Center as crucial to furthering the upward mobility of young black males in St. Louis.
“Homegrown STL prioritizes young black males and the role organizations like Fathers Support Center has to assume to ensure that new generations of black fathers are prepared and provided with the upward-mobility opportunities needed for responsible fatherhood,” Joe said.
“Black fatherhood is not broken. It may be weakened, challenged, but always recoverable and impactful.”
For more information, call 314-333-4170 or visit http://fatherssupportcenter.org.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.