Arthur Darby III heads the fatherhood program at Bright Beginnings. The course meets weekly and aims to give fathers tools to build strong families. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

On the first day of a brand-new class designed to turn men with children into fathers, Arthur Darby III handed out spiral-bound notebooks and asked the attendees to write their names in the front, along with the words “Children are the reward of life.”

As anyone who is a father knows, that reward can be difficult and complicated.

Darby had studied the curriculum for the fatherhood initiative being launched by Bright Beginnings, the nonprofit in Southeast Washington where he works and where the 10 or so dads (more would trickle in) had gathered. But until the class got going, Darby had no idea where the conversation would actually lead.

Think about your own childhood, he began. What was it like?

“My childhood?” said a man named Dontike Miller, 33, whose toddler is a Bright Beginnings student. “I don’t think I even played in a sandbox.”

Miller never met his father. And though his mother is clean now, he said that for most of his childhood, she used drugs and was sometimes too out of it to care for him.

“How many of you grew up in a family where you couldn’t ask questions?” Darby asked.

A few hands went up.

“What happens,” he asked, “when you shut your kid down from having communications?”

“They go to somebody else,” one father said.

“They grow up lacking knowledge,” said another.

“They become vulnerable,” Darby said.

Bright Beginnings, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, provides preschool to children in District families experiencing homelessness. The kids get a quality early education and the parents get access to programs that will lift them from poverty.

For years, there has been a Bright Beginnings group for single mothers, a weekly place for them to meet, compare notes and offer one another support.

“A lot of organizations target their resources to them,” Darby told me. “That’s led to a generalized belief that the majority of fathers are not engaged.”

That may be the case, but the Bright Beginnings staff noticed plenty of fathers were dropping kids off in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon or evening. (Bright Beginnings offers day care, too.)

They put the word out that a dads-only group was forming. At the end of the 12-session program, graduates will receive a certificate, something that might prove useful when meeting with social service agencies. Another incentive for the kickoff meeting: A barber was there to give free haircuts and shaves.

Darby asked the men to write down goals they have for their children and for themselves. He explained that the fatherhood initiative hopes those goals will include a good education, a good job, loving relationships, a desire to help the black community and the ability to resist street pressures.

That last one can be tough, said Miller. He admitted that the lure of the streets was once too much for him. He turned to the one participant who wasn’t yet a father. The 19-year-old’s girlfriend is due in February.

Miller explained that until you’re a father you can’t really know the tensions. You’ve been thinking only of yourself. The danger, Miller said, is that you may continue to.

“There comes a point when you might ask yourself, ‘Are you the kind of guy who buys weed? Or the kind that buys diapers?’ ” Miller said. “You look like the kind who would buy diapers.”

Before joining Bright Beginnings a year ago, Darby, 28, worked for five years as a D.C. police officer in the 4th District. He values his time in the force but was looking for a job that was more proactive than reactive.

“We didn’t only just lock people up, but we still had to uphold the law,” Darby said. His new job, he said, is a way of “helping them before they get to be a part of the system.”

Darby just completed his master’s of divinity and is a youth pastor at his church, Temple of Praise on Southern Avenue SE. He’s also a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.

Darby’s parents are married and his dad — Arthur II — continues to be a role model. Arthur III is not a father.

“That’s why I allow the fathers to really facilitate the course and allow their voices to be the foundation of what I’m teaching,” he said.

Miller settled into a chair as Justice Hill, a barber from His Grooming on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, prepared to give him a straight-razor shave.

“I can look halfway human again,” Miller joked.

As the class ended, Darby collected the notebooks. He’d hand them back out at the next class in a week’s time.

“Spread the word to other fathers,” he said as the men left to collect their rewards.

You can help

The people most curious about the Bright Beginnings fatherhood initiative? The moms. They think it’s pretty cool.

You can help support Bright Beginnings. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.” To contribute by mail, make a check payable to “Bright Beginnings” and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, DC 20032.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.