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Helping fathers and families

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Gary Jackson is 48 but hopes it's not too late to be a good dad.

He grew up fatherless and spent years away from his four older children, now adults. Now he shares parenting duties for his 9-year-old twin daughters, Aisha and Iasha, and is seeking custody of his 3-month-old daughter, Aja, who is in foster care.

Organizers of the Allegheny County Fatherhood Forum are looking for more men like Jackson, who understand their responsibility and aren't afraid to ask for help.

Raymond Howard, executive director for the Greater Pittsburgh Fatherhood Initiative, said the free forum — Thursday and Friday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church — hopes to promote responsibility, show the importance of fatherhood and outline outreach programs for fathers.

"Too many of our children are growing up without access to their fathers," Howard said. "Fathers are a valuable part of the parenting process. We need them to assume and accept responsibility to take care of their children and to be good role models for their children."

The National Fatherhood Initiative contends that fatherless homes increase children's chances of living in poverty, being involved in violent criminal behavior, doing poorly in school and developing emotional or behavioral problems. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 12 percent of the 537,150 Allegheny County households have no father at home.

"Fathers don't see themselves as part of the whole picture," Howard said. "Many of them have gotten the message they aren't valued or important. We are trying to reverse that social trend."

The Rev. James McLemore, pastor of Bethel AME Church in the Hill District, expressed similar sentiments, saying popular culture does not always portray fathers as important.

"Fatherhood is the key," McLemore said. "If you want to have strong families, fathers have to be present. Men and women both need to be present. If one is missing, it's devastating."

Howard said his organization helps all fathers — single or married, black or white. He said some of the issues facing fathers are unemployment, underemployment, affordable housing, incarceration and substance abuse.

The registration deadline for the Fatherhood Forum has passed; nearly 1,000 people are expected to attend.

Jackson, whose children are 3 months to 30 years old, said he's learning to be a father for the first time through Healthy Start, a program that seeks to help single fathers.

"I was out of town when the baby was born. Social services (Office of Children, Youth and Families) stepped in because I wasn't here," Jackson said, adding that his daughter's mother had personal problems that authorities determined left her unable to properly care for the girl.

Jackson said many of the problems he's experienced in life are directly linked to his father's absence and ultimately kept him from fulfilling his duty as a father.

"I knew nothing about being a dad," Jackson said. "I didn't learn it from my dad. Healthy Start has helped by telling me what I need to do and giving me the tools to do it."

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