Ben Harris was 14 when his twin sons entered the world. His young girlfriend gave him an ultimatum:
Take me and our babies or your gang-banger buddies. You can’t have both.
Ben chose his pals and was eventually shot in the side by a rival gang. He survived. A different girlfriend gave birth to his daughter a year later. They left, too.
Just turned 18, Ben is out of prison. Again.
He has five felonies for selling drugs and gang-related crimes. One more strike, he says, could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
For the first time, perhaps, Ben is contemplating his future and what it means to be a dad.
“It’s about loving and caring and being there for them,” says this bright-eyed kid who never sees his three kids and feels the pain of separation.
This teen vision of dear old dad never dawned on Sonora Smart Dodd when the Spokane woman founded Father’s Day back in 1910.
Ben is one of eight street-hardened youths attempting to absorb some belated child-rearing wisdom by attending Paternal Instincts - an innovative six-week course for young men at Crosswalk, Spokane’s downtown shelter for displaced teens.
The two-hour weekly classes are held in a narrow basement room. Topics range from changing diapers to controlling anger to getting a job.
Attendance is voluntary. Attention is somewhat scattered. Those who show up are rewarded with Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners and Tootsie Rolls for answering questions in class.
At the end of six weeks, graduates get to buy presents for their kids. For some of these young dads this will be a first.
“There are a lot of services available for girls and pregnant women,” says Denise Layman, Crosswalk’s executive director. “It’s always been one of my pet peeves that nothing really focuses on young males.”
Layman helped design the course, which began in mid-May and is paid for by a one-time $13,000 city and county grant. She considers it so important that, grant or not, it will become part of Crosswalk’s services available to the 350 kids who wander in and out each year.
She’s right. Few things are as frightening as adolescent fathers who are clueless to what being a good parent is all about.
Ben’s mom left when he was a baby. His dad was a drug dealer who did hard time. “My brother raised me until I was 7,” he says. “After that I was pretty much on my own.”
Parental Instincts students all have problems of varying degrees.
There’s a 16-year-old boy who has lost track of his year-old daughter, who lives in another state with his ex-girlfriend.
“It hurts me that I can’t see her,” says the boy, who didn’t want his name in the paper. “A child is like part of your life and part of your heart.”
Adrian Tensley, 22, survived the street thing and is now trying to get his life in order.
He lives with a young woman and their daughter. His son and ex-girlfriend live in another state, but Adrian does what he can to stay involved in the boy’s life.
A few of the young men are not fathers, but live with women who have young children. “Changing a dirty diaper, man,” says Vince (not his real name), who is 17. “That’s the scariest thing I can think of about being a father.”
During a recent class, instructor Dennis Kessner lectured on how to keep from getting out of control. The discussion was lively and R-rated. It was difficult to determine how much was sinking in.
At Crosswalk, success with such life-scarred kids is often measured in the smallest of baby steps.
“I know I’m not going to fix anybody,” says Layman. “We’re just here to provide options. We just try everything until something clicks.”