It’s a sunny spring day with the smell of fresh-cut grass in the air.

Birds call from the trees.

Juan Perez is all smiles. He is in his element—the outdoors. And he’s being paid for it.

The Fort Atkinson native has worked factory jobs. They’re not for him.

He has hung out with men who worked for drug cartels when he lived in the Southwest. They told him about the quick money, but he saw what it did to them—constantly afraid in a life where the off-ramps are prison or deadly violence.

“They said you never know who’s going to take you down. So, you’re always running,” he said.

That’s not for him, either, he said as he sat at a picnic table on the grounds of Janesville’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Perez said he owes these realizations to a program run by Community Action in Beloit and Janesville and soon to expand to Walworth County.

The Fatherhood Initiative educates men, often in their 30s. The goal is to make them part of the solution to the cycle of poverty, said Erick Williams, who has run the program since it began in 2007.

Williams believes fathers often are ignored in discussions about improving society.

“We will continue to struggle until men play a vital part in the rearing of their children,” Williams said.

Perez said the program made him realize he needed to work outdoors to be happy.

“Nothing’s worse than doing a job you don’t want to do,” Williams said.

Fatherhood clients often have never held steady jobs. Many were involved in crime. Some are homeless. Most grew up with no fathers at home, Williams said.

That’s not the case for Perez. His was more of a need to find a job that he liked and that could support a family.

Perez married Maria in 2003, soon after returning from the Southwest to southern Wisconsin. They’re in the final stages of getting Maria a green card. In the meantime, she cares for their two boys, Aiden, 4, and Juan, almost 1.

“It’s been difficult. I’m the only one working in the family,” Perez said.

A friend recommended the Fatherhood Initiative.

The program teaches practical skills, such as how to apply for jobs online and how to write a resume. It also teaches “soft skills.”

“We call it AA—attitude and attendance,” Williams said.

Employers often tell Williams they need those key ingredients, and they have to train employees for everything else, anyway.

Perez smiled broadly as he talked about the program leading him to the kind of work he loves to do.

He mows grass, plants trees, digs and maintains graves, prepares for ceremonies, sets up flags for Memorial Day and replants grass.

He has learned the value of good soil and good seed.

He likes the outdoors but also learning new things.

“It’s 90 acres, so we are busy,” he said.

The fatherhood program included readings and discussion that teach participants to think about where they are and where they are going.

“This course, it shows you, ‘Hey, this is where I went off track,’” Perez said.

Williams said the course includes “cognitive restructuring,” or changing ways of thinking and values that have been ingrained over many years.

“You can’t change that overnight,” Williams said, and that’s why the course requires attendance five hours a day for eight weeks.

That’s a long time to go without a full-time job, but Williams said many participants are underemployed to start with. Some have never held a job.

Some may ask why these men can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

“First of all, you’ve got to have on some boots, let alone boots with straps,” Williams said.

The participants often don’t have academic skills, and they don’t get the informal training in trade crafts that fathers in the past provided because they didn’t have dads, he said.

About 75 percent of Fatherhood Initiative graduates find work, Williams said, and more than 35 percent keep jobs for at least six months.

About 85 percent of participants have had some involvement with the criminal justice system, but after going through the program, only 6 percent of those with criminal histories are convicted of new crimes.

“I Iearned about myself, my values and my beliefs,” Perez said. “Sometimes you lose focus of yourself, and you do stuff that you don’t really want to do, I guess to satisfy others, or you think it’s easy. … It was good being with other people who had similar problems, and altogether we talked about it and found solutions ...

“It’s going to help me better myself, be a better person, be a better father, teach my kids and be a better husband,” Perez said.

The program also helped Perez get into the state FoodShare Employment and Training program, which requires work or training to get federal food aid and helps participants learn job skills and find jobs.

Eligibility for FSET is a Fatherhood Initiative requirement, Williams said, but the program aims at getting the men’s families off government assistance by getting them jobs.

The Fatherhood Initiative also provides help with housing, transportation and relationships.

Perez thanks the city of Janesville for the job and the Fatherhood instructors for helping him realize this is what he wants.

“They helped me find who I am, so I don’t go down that (wrong) road, I guess. It doesn’t help you out any. More, it hurts you,” he said.

It’s a seasonal job, but Perez has been told there’s a possibility of being hired on permanently.

“If not here, maybe somewhere else. This is a good starting point for me,” Perez said.

The local economy has helped in recent years.

“There’s more jobs out there than there’s people to put in them,” Williams said.

Perez said he has a brother who is in prison on a probation revocation. When he gets out, Perez will recommend he join the Fatherhood program.

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