James Hall is learning what it takes to be a father.
The Ballou Senior High School student, who is 18, has been struggling to care for his year-old daughter, Ja'Mya Princess Hall. He missed the first couple of weeks of school because he could not find day care. He has been living with Ja'Mya at a friend's place in Maryland, and other than making some occasional money moving furniture, he doesn't have a job.
"My daughter's mother is nowhere in the picture," he said. "My mother put me out when I turned 18 . . . . I had to learn everything for myself."
Yesterday, however, Hall was overwhelmed with offers of assistance after he talked about his hardships before a roomful of fellow fathers.
Hall was the youngest dad at the 100 Fathers' Conference. The forum, held at Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw, was designed to address what participants described as a crisis in many District neighborhoods: absent fathers. Organizers said the purpose of the event was to educate men on how to be better parents and to draw attention to the lack of city services for single fathers.
"Unstable families lead to unstable communities," said Tony Dugger, director of community engagement for the North Capitol Collaborative. The group was one of three Healthy Families/Thriving Communities Collaboratives that sponsored the conference.
The collaboratives, which are funded through the Child Family Services Agency, are a network of community groups focused on preventing child abuse and neglect.
About 200 people attended the forum throughout the day. Fathers and grandfathers from various D.C. neighborhoods sat at circular tables in a church conference room as representatives from community groups and city agencies discussed manhood, fatherhood and the fragile state of some black families.
Some said city services for families in need often focus on mothers, not fathers. Others talked about the importance of seeking guidance from God, and still others said men cannot learn how to be fathers without being husbands first. One panelist said the importance of fathers was expressed in findings that children whose fathers were absent were more likely to drop out of school and more likely to be involved with violence.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein talked about his relationship with his two daughters and about looking beyond the difficulties of fatherhood. "Our children are not burdens," he told the audience. "Our children are blessings."
Other speakers included D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Neil O. Albert, the city's deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders.
The Rev. La Verne Harley, a conference planner with Shiloh Baptist Church's Family Life Center, said there were many definitions of being a man and being a father. "But being a man and being a father are two different things," Harley said. "Anybody can birth a child. But it takes a father to help nurture the child, to provide for the child, to even love the child."
Michael Barton, who sat on a morning panel with four other fathers, has two children -- a 29-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son -- by two women. He was in prison for 13 years and nine months for heroin distribution and was released about six months ago, he said.
His daughter was 15 and his son was 4 months old when Barton went away. He said he understood the anger they occasionally have shown for his absence. "You've got to have an open ear to the kids," said Barton, 45, who said he has been trying to put his life back together. "You've got to let them vent. A lot of times, it's not what you say, it's what you listen to."
Hall said he felt that few people had listened to him before yesterday. "It's very hard for a man to get any government help," said the Ballou senior, who has been receiving assistance from United Planning Organization.
Fatherhood has changed him, teaching him responsibility, he said. "I'm learning a whole lot," Hall told the audience. "I wash, clean, do bottles -- stuff that I'd never thought I'd ever do."
Conference attendees gave him a standing ovation. One man stood and said he could get Hall a paid construction apprenticeship. "See me afterwards," he told Hall. "I already got your name on my list."
Later, men talked with Hall and pledged support for housing and day care. He shook hands with people he had never met and slipped business cards into his wallet. He lifted a smiling Ja'Mya by the arms and held her close to his chest.