It was an early Fathers Day Saturday as alumni of the Newark Comprehensive Center for Fathers' (NCCF) Fathers Now program hit the pavement for a little spring cleaning in the South Ward.
Starting as early as 7 a.m., dozens of volunteers scoured the entire length of Tillinghast Street to weed-whack, mow lawns and sweep up leaves as part of the organization's new Adopt-a-Neighborhood initiative. Every two or so months, Fathers Now will clean up a neighborhood belonging to one of its alumni or current students.
"We've graduated about 300 guys. Doesn't look like it out here because about half of them should be here," said John Leslie, co-director of NCCF, with a laugh while motioning to the street.
The cleanup, which stretched from Clinton Place to Osbourne Terrace, also served as NCCF's monthly alumni meeting. It was organized in conjunction with the Newark chapter of Omega Psi Phi, one of the largest African-American fraternities in the country.
Fathers Now is a free eight-week program aimed at reconnecting fathers with their families by teaching men a gamut of life skills. The program, open to fathers regardless of custody status, provides classes on parenting and also aids in employment search.
"Fathers for a long time, not only in the city of Newark, but throughout the country have been cut away from their responsibility of being involved in the kid's life," said Abdul Muhammad, co-director of NCCF. "People have a prejudiced perception of fathers in general, so what this program does is shines a mirror on the importance of fatherhood."
Fathers Now began three years ago as part of NewarkNow, the city-wide outreach effort founded by Mayor Cory A. Booker in 2003. Fathers Now, the first replication of Philadelphia branch which started 12 years ago, graduates four to five classes a year. Eighty fathers, part of Class 16, will graduate today.
"It's really what life should be about," said Booker, who strolled Tillinghast Street Saturday to greet volunteers. "You're empowering yourself through serving other people. I'm so proud of this program."
The mayor noted a 3 percent recidivism rate among NCCF graduates.
A self-proclaimed street hustler before graduating from the Fathers Now, Vernon Riley, 37, said joining the program was the best decision of his life.
"It gave me a different outlook on life. It made me want to be more positive in our community," said Riley, who lives on 18th Avenue in the West Ward. "I was taught how to use my negative energy and turn it into positive energy."
Since graduating from the program, Riley has landed a job as an outreach coordinator at the Family Success Center and has gotten married. He is the father of three girls and one boy ranging from ages four to 20.
"I had to make sure they ate, they had clothes on their back - I had to provide," said Riley. "Now I live a straight and narrow, positive life."
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