Profile: Halbert Sullivan, CEO, Fathers’ Support Center St. Louis March 8, 2018

Children in fatherless homes are 32 times more likely to run away, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, and five times more likely to commit suicide. What’s more, 70 percent of youth involved in criminal behavior and illegal drugs come from fatherless homes, and 82 percent of teenage mothers come from fatherless homes.

Fathers’ Support Center was founded in 1997 to help absent fathers get back involved in the lives of their children as a way to avoid these outcomes. Its founder, Halbert Sullivan, knew the realities of a fatherless home all too well – after growing up the oldest of 8 kids, poor, without his biological father, and with a largely absent step-father, he ended up addicted to drugs and serving several shorts stints in prison. When he was 43 years old, and many thought him past redemption, he turned his life around. He checked into a drug rehab center and got clean. He got back in touch with his children. He enrolled in community college and went on to earn a master’s of social work degree from Washington University.

While working as a social worker with St. Louis Public Schools, some community leaders approached him to lead up a new program focused on fatherhood. They had no mission, no methods, no strategies, and no money, but they knew that they wanted a program to address fathers to mirror the many programs available for teenage mothers. Based on research by the MDRC and Parents Fair Share, as well as Mr. Sullivan’s own training, they came up with a six-week curriculum for absent fathers that includes sessions such as “Anger Clues/Maintaining Your Cool,” “Relationship Roadblocks,” and “Redefining Manhood.”

More than 20 years later, those classes are still at the core of a 6-week intensive program that some have dubbed a “fatherhood boot camp.” The boot camp kicks off a year-long program that FSC runs for non-custodial fathers in St. Louis. That program has served more than 14,000 fathers and made a difference for more than 40,000 children. In 2017, Mr. Sullivan received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Partnership of Community Leadership and the Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award at the 18th Annual Salute to Excellence in Business Awards. He’s also received honors from the NAACP, Missouri Association for Social Welfare, Washington University, and the Governor of Missouri.

  1. You’ve had dozens of so-called “fatherhood boot camps” over the years. What’s your typical opening speech when you first meet a new group of participating fathers?

One of the most important things that I inform our fathers of – that you might call something like an opening speech – is a little bit about my background. I do that so we can all be in line, so we can all know one other. At first they’re a little in awe of me – I’m a recovering drug addict and ex-con, and I share that with them. And then their questions often revolve around: ‘How did you get around such-and-such? How did you make that happen? I’ve been looking for a job, and my background has kept me from getting a job.’ I simply share with them the responsible routes that they will learn during the 6 weeks.

Then I very politely let them know: ‘I don’t know what you read, I don’t know what you heard, but we don’t promise you anything.’ Most of the guys come to us because they heard that we can help them get jobs, or they heard that we can intervene in their child support situations. I let them know up front that we don’t do any of that. What we do here is teach responsible behavior in relationships with your children. The only thing I promise them is if they last here for 6 weeks, they will become responsible enough to get their own job and get their own help. One of the reasons I do that is to dispel any notions that we’re going to be giving handouts up in here. We aren’t giving any handouts; we’re giving a hand up.

  1. Fathers’ Support Center doesn’t call it a “boot camp,” but the program has earned a reputation for its intensive nature. Why is it so hard?

It’s hard because they make it hard. They make it hard for themselves. If you look at our society, there’s rules. Everybody’s got rules. The populations that we work with often times have not had rules presented to them, nor have they played within the guidelines of them. Rules are a joke for them. But our program has a lot of rules – a lot of structure – and that’s probably why people have deemed it a boot camp.

Our program begins at 8 o’clock in the morning – 8am-4pm, 5 days/week, for 6 weeks. And the first thing we teach them is that 8 o’clock means 7:45. That clock starts ticking at 8:01. If you’re late two times, we’ll most likely drop you. We’re working on job readiness from day one, and one of the most important things about any kind of entry-level employment is that you be on time. There are some excused absences – court things, doctor things, children things – but we send you with a sheet that needs to be signed by whoever you’re going to see with the time you showed up and when you left.

And you can’t wear your pants falling down here. When you see one of these young guys with their pants falling all the way down, is that someone you’re willing to hire or even give a good conversation to? You only get one warning on that, or we’ll drop you.

Our classes run just like high school – stop and start, stop and start, with a lot of repetition to topic material. But there’s no me-me-me, I-I-I. It’s about your children. Our topics are parenting, responsible fatherhood, child abuse prevention, domestic violence prevention, financial literacy, legal issues dealing with custodial law, job readiness, and job work ethics.

  1. How do you measure success?

For me, it comes down to three things: Are you seeing your children? Are you paying your child support? And do you have a job?

The six weeks is just a beginning. It’s really a year-long program, and after completion they have two social workers assigned to them – one who helps with any social service needs, another who helps with employment and job training needs. Those two will be in touch with him at least twice a month, and they fill out a form about his involvement with his children. They also contact the mother to see if what he’s saying is half-way true. We also have attorneys on staff, and we assist our dads with getting legal visitations in place.

  1. After the 6-week boot camp, you have a graduation. What does that look like?

We have one tonight. There are about 40 fathers completing the program, and there will probably be about 100-125 family members and friends there. They will receive a certificate, and they will get an opportunity to share 2 minutes of what they learned at Fathers’ Support Center. It’s really a self-esteem booster for many of them. Sometimes it can be a tear-jerker. In the process of their 2 minutes, they’ll let you know: ‘I ain’t never completed nothing else before in my life.’

  1. After your early life experiences, and the last 20 years running this program, do you think you’ve heard it all? Does anyone ever surprise you?

Yes, I have heard pretty much it all. But I’m still in wonder of what they share sometimes. Every morning, we have a therapeutic circle called “What’s Up?” It’s an opportunity for them to openly share things that are going on in their life, and it revolves around their children. You’ll learn that in this society where we have chosen to throw people away, most of those people are just good human beings who want good stuff for their children.

  1. When you first started out 20 years ago, you famously recruited fathers by grilling hotdogs on street corners as a way to start conversations with potential participants. How do you recruit fathers today?

About 45 percent of our men come by way of word of mouth. That word of mouth can be generated by past successful clients, or by their significant others – their moms, aunties, and grandmothers are all talking to other people about what occurred when their son or grandson came into our program.

However, we also have a street recruitment team that’s still out there on the streets. Each team is comprised of at least one staff member and at least one past client. They walk the streets and hand out fliers and talk to guys on the streets. But these days we use lots of data and mapping to target those interactions. We collect data from our clients – like the zipcodes where they came from – and combine that with Census information on the most impoverished neighborhoods and places where there are high numbers of single parents.

Then we get a significant amount of referrals from child support enforcement. With us, child support enforcement is not the enemy. I’ve been working very closely with child support enforcement since 1997. My goal is to get guys to pay child support. I tell them: ‘I don’t care if you have to pick grapes, but you got to pay that child support.’ But we want him to have a child support payment that he can afford to pay. There’s no sense in giving a guy a $150/week payment when he’s coming home with only $200/week.

We’ve been around for 20 years, and we have a lot of relationships in the community and in social service entities. So we get a lot of referrals from other places too – family court, probation/parole, service providers working with mothers, and others.

  1. Do you think your program is re-defining manhood? If so, how?

We’re not re-defining manhood as you and I know manhood. We’re re-defining manhood as they know manhood. Often times, they’ve been brought up to think that when you make a baby, you a man. That don’t make you a man, that makes you a sperm donor. The ability to provide and take care of the baby and the family – that’s what makes you a man. So when we say “re-defining,” we’re talking about from their perspective. We dispel all their past notions of what they think manhood is. You’re not a man because you’re running around in a gang. You’re not a man because you’re making money and giving it to somebody. The providing means more than just providing money; you have to give of your time. You have to be a change agent for the child. You have to help the child develop and grow.

Without a doubt, I believe our fathers leave our program with a new definition of manhood. I wouldn’t be here 20 years if I didn’t believe that. We maintain relationships with a significant number of men, and we see them come back and prove that out. Just a few days back, I had a guy who had been gone for over 18 years, and he helped me with a presentation; he shared with a group of people how what he learned here influenced and impacted his life. Another guy who came into our program had a brush with the law before he completed the program; he went away for 6 months, and after he got out, he decided to come back – that was his decision. He came back and he completed, and we got him into forklift training, he got a job as a forklift driver, and now he’s reunited with his children and the mother of his children, and he’s just tickled pink and as happy as he can be. That’s the beauty of the work that I get to do here – I get a chance to hear and see what’s going on in their lives, almost daily.

  1. In addition to running FSC, you own three small businesses in town. What do you do to relax?

I spend time a lot of time at home with my family, and we do some pretty good vacationing. We just came off of a Caribbean cruise. We went to Jamaica, Caramel, and the Cayman Islands. Relaxing is a wonderful thing – I get a chance to relax in the evening and on the weekend, mostly family time – but my life has been dedicated to the Fathers’ Support Center. If you never want to work a day in your life, you find a job that you like to do. If you’ve read my history, what you read is only a quarter of what really occurred. On my journey back into the real world, I asked God to lead and guide me, and this is what I do.