Fatherhood: Dad praises family's strength in hard times
BELOIT -- Antonio Johnson fell on hard times two years ago when he lost his job and then his Beloit home.
His now-6-year-old daughter, Demi, did her best to comfort him:
“Dad, don't worry,” she said. “Everything will get better.”
Johnson counted on the kindness of relatives for shelter.
While looking for work, he discovered the Fatherhood Initiative, which helps dads pull themselves out of poverty by preparing them for and helping them find work.
This Father's Day, Johnson is in a much better place because of the program.
Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties runs the 10-week classes in Janesville and Beloit.
About 80 men a year enroll.
“Initially, I had a feeling of hopelessness because I could not provide for my kids,” Johnson said. “When you cannot provide basic necessities, you feel like you are failing them.”
The program helped Johnson with interviewing and job-search skills. Now, the 41-year-old single father of five is back on track with a stable job as a machine operator.
“The fatherhood class helped me re-evaluate what I want in life and go out and find it,” Johnson said.
With steady income again, Johnson has rented a house.
He experienced one of his happiest moments helping his kids select and decorate their bedrooms.
Demi put butterflies on the wall, while 2-year-old Javier preferred Mario superhero decals.
In addition to Demi and Javier, Johnson's children are Antonia, 21, Antonio Jr., 18, and Aidan, 4.
“They all make me proud,” he said.
When the family was struggling, the older children stepped up to help. Antonia provided reliable child care, and young Antonio Jr. stood by his dad while finishing high school.
“I told my dad that I am here to help you,” Antonio Jr. said. “We are here to take care of each other.”
Antonio Jr. is a recent graduate of Beloit Memorial High School and will attend Blackhawk Technical College.
“My children were the biggest inspiration through our hard times,” Johnson said. “They faced challenges that are difficult for so many adults. I am looking forward to seeing what they will accomplish.”
Johnson realized from the start that he wanted to be a dedicated father. He learned a healthy blueprint for fatherhood from his own dad.
His parents are Tim Sr. and Diane Johnson of Beloit.
“My dad has always been there for me,” Johnson said. “He said it's important to be in your kids' lives.”
Not all men are as fortunate.
Ninety percent in the Fatherhood Initiative grew up in homes without fathers.
“They are 'fatherless fathers,'” said Erick Williams, program manager. “The program breaks the cycle.”
Up to 85 percent are estranged from their children.
Williams called the initiative one of the most important in the state.
“When you talk about the outcome for kids, children in a single-parent home are more likely to get involved in the criminal-justice system,” Williams said. “It takes $35,000 a year to support someone in the correctional system.”
When a person stays out of the correctional system, it saves money and means the person is working and paying taxes, he added.
In addition to helping fathers find work, the program helps them understand why they are unemployed or in the criminal-justice system.
“Many have low reading and math skills,” Williams said. “You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don't have the necessary skills. They lack work experience and training.”
An eight-week boot camp offers training in culinary arts, computer numerical control or CNC, and welding.
Statistics show that:
-- 85 percent of men complete the program.
-- 77 percent find employment.
-- 10 percent who were in the criminal-justice system break the law again.
Classes also teach fathers to get involved with their kids.
“We talk about integrity and being a positive part of your children's life,” Williams said. “When men come in here, they are broken. It gets really emotional at times.”
Williams, whose daughter recently married, said every father should have the chance to be a part of the big events in their children's lives.
“That's why I work as hard as I do,” he said. “Those moments happen only once in a lifetime.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.