Young men taught to do what's right Responsibility: Created by Joe Jones in 1993, Men's Services aims to make young black fathers employable while encouraging them to be responsible to the women and children who need them.

February 28, 1997|By William E. Thompson Jr. | William E. Thompson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Joe Jones vividly recalls that first Men's Services meeting in 1993, attended only by Jones, two staff members, one client and two guys summoned off a street corner.

"We were so depressed. We thought we had failed," said Jones, reflecting on that moment when reaching his goal of 60 members must have seemed like a fantasy.

But in less than four years, Jones has seen significant progress toward his goal: making young black fathers employable while encouraging them to be responsible to the women and children who need them.

The program has grown from three clients to 200 -- average age 24 -- with a staff that numbers 10.

Despite that growth, however, Jones fears further progress might be curtailed by budget cuts in the federal funds that support it.

Jones, 40, head of the organization, created the program in June 1993. Men's Services is an offshoot of Healthy Start, a 22-city federal program aimed at reducing infant mortality rates in low-income areas.

Jones's premise regarding fathers is simple. "We tell them you have to stand up as a man and as a father, and unless you do the right thing, chances are your children aren't going to do the right thing, either," he said in an interview.

As an example of what his program is capable of, Jones points with pride to 19-year-old Russell D. James, one of 18 enrollees employed under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's lead removal program.

James and his girlfriend, Tracey A. Wells, 21, have a 20-month-old daughter, Jaze Mariah; she gave birth to their second child, a son, Tuesday. They plan to marry in about a month.

But things weren't always so promising. At 15, James was expelled from Frederick Douglass High School for selling drugs, something he continued for the next three years. He said he felt "lost" and assumed no employer would hire him -- leaving him with only grim prospects.

"I just prayed and prayed that it would get better, but it only got worse," he said. Fourteen months ago, because of "Tracey, my daughter and the Lord," he enrolled in one of Jones' groups.

James admitted he didn't get much out of it at first because he refused to vent his emotions about his problems. After a while, however, he began to articulate his feelings, and things just seemed "to get easier and easier," he said. Now he has no problem speaking up at meetings and tries to recruit others.

He said his goal is to become a mechanic but added that he would remain with his employer "until they fire me."

Jones said not all of the men in his program are as dedicated as James. He acknowledges that creating a steady work ethic in young men who were involved in "the most illegal activities imaginable" is an "evolving process" and that the bulk of his clients are not ready for gainful employment; some might never be ready.

But that doesn't deter him, and he said the program's screening process is what ensures the home-improvement contractors, and other employers, such as the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, will want to continue hiring his clients.

He added that at least 20 men will be ready for gainful employment within the next three months.

Recently, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo praised Baltimore's efforts. "The Baltimore program, along with a similar program HUD funds in Hartford, is a national model. We will work with housing authorities around the country to help them start similar programs. These programs are rebuilding lives as they rebuild affordable housing," Cuomo said.

Despite the recognition, Jones is worried because Healthy Start, which provides money for Men's Services, will see its federal funds drop by $5.5 million in the next fiscal year.

"I'm somewhat concerned," he said. "When you work with public service programs, you never know what services will be cut. I still don't know if people see how critical fathers are to the reduction in teen pregnancy, drop-out rates and crime and violence."

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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