A father’s story of redemption

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When Halbert Sullivan, 67, appeared recently on Capitol Hill before the House Ways and Means Committee, he spoke about his work helping thousands of men—mostly poor and unemployed—learn to become responsible, involved, and financially supportive fathers. 

Halbert Sullivan testifies before House Ways and Means, June 2019  

He didn’t mention in his prepared testimony that he’d spent the better part of his youth in and out of prison, or a dozen more years as (in his own words) a “street walking, vacant-building living, dope addict crackhead,” or that he’d been an absent father to his own child. And he didn’t mention that all of these things occurred while he was living in Rochester.

Instead, he spoke about the celebrated organization he’d created—the Fathers’ Support Center—and its remarkable success in helping break the cycle of poverty by transforming absent fathers into nurturing parents. Since its founding in St. Louis, Mo., in 1997, the center has helped 16,000 fathers become financially and emotionally involved parents with the skills necessary to hold a job and support a family—and, in turn, made a difference for more than 40,000 children.

Like many Rochesterians, I had never heard of Sullivan and learned of his achievements only by chance, when I read of his appearance before Congress for the hearing entitled “Celebrating Fathers and Families: Federal Support for Responsible Fatherhood.”After learning what I could about his work, I spoke with Sullivan by phone. We talked of his extraordinary personal story, of the work of the Fathers’ Support Center, his continuing ties to Rochester, and whether a similar program might help address some of our city’s most pressing problems.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, followed by comments on the Fathers’ Support Center and its potential application in Rochester. But first, some background on Sullivan, his years in Rochester, and his founding of the Fathers’ Support Center.

Rough beginning

Sullivan, the oldest of eight children, was born in 1951 in Memphis, Tenn. His father left the family and he was raised by his mother—age 15 at the time of his birth—and an often-absent stepfather. In 1966, the Sullivan family moved to Rochester, where relatives were already living. Within a year, the family moved to St. Louis, but Halbert, then 16, chose to stay in Rochester with an aunt. 

He excelled in school and things were going well until, by his own description, he got “caught up in the street scene.” A series of arrests and convictions followed: for burglary, drug possession and sales, and other crimes. He was incarcerated three different times. Release was followed by parole violations and more prison time, including at the state prison in Auburn. Released again, he attempted to resume his education at Monroe Community College but began using cocaine, a habit that turned into a 20-year addiction and a precarious existence on the streets of Rochester. 

It wasn’t until he was middle-aged—at 43—that Sullivan was able to turn his life around. He settled in St. Louis, got back in touch with his children, and earned a college degree. And then, at 47, after receiving a master’s degree in social work from Washington University, community leaders in St. Louis approached him about creating a program to help children by helping their fathers.

The notion of a program to help fathers—similar to programs designed to help young mothers—appealed to Sullivan. Not only did it tap into his own lived experience of growing up without a stable father figure, but also it would address some of what he’d learned in studying social sciences. The figures, as provided by the Fathers’ Support Center, are compelling:

  • 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;
  • 70 percent of youth involved in crime and illegal drugs come from fatherless homes;
  • 82 percent of teenage mothers come from fatherless homes.

At the start, Sullivan was the center’s only employee—and he worked the first three months without pay. To find men to participate in his new program, he walked through housing projects and knocked on doors; he grilled hot dogs on street corners to start conversations. The group survived that first year on modest grants from the United Way, two private foundations, and donations from the public.

Today, about half the men who participate in Sullivan’s programs come by word of mouth; many others are referred by agencies that enforce child support payments. But Sullivan still maintains a recruitment team to hand out flyers and talk to men on the streets. Three-fourths of men who enroll in the program lack a high school diploma; 80 percent have criminal records. 

Men who enroll commit to the group’s Responsible Fatherhood Project, a six-week, full-day program where they are taught parenting skills, child abuse and domestic violence prevention, nutrition, financial literacy, job interviewing skills and job work ethics. Sessions include topics such as “Anger Clues/Maintaining Your Cool,” “Relationship Roadblocks,” and “Redefining Manhood.” During the final two weeks, they are required to wear business attire to prepare for job interviews, which the center arranges. 

“The populations that we work with often times have not had rules presented to them,” Sullivan explained in a recently published profile. “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.”

The “boot camp” runs 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week. If a participant shows up late twice, he’s likely to be dropped. “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?” Sullivan says. “You only get one warning on that, or we’ll drop you.” 

Measuring success

How does Sullivan measure success? 

 “Are you seeing your children?” he asks. “Are you paying your child support? Do you have a job?”

Following the initial six-week program, the center continues to work with each man for a year. During that time, social workers check on him at least twice a month, he’ll report in writing about his involvement with his children, and the social workers will contact the mother to see if what he’s reporting is true. 

In a recent year, 357 fathers in the Responsible Father program—and 200 more in a re-entry program for ex-offenders—found jobs or maintained their employment. One hundred twenty fathers paid a combined $369,000 in child support. The center has 55 full-time employees and an annual budget of nearly $5 million, of which $2 million comes from a federal grant from Health and Human Services. The possible renewal of that grant was the reason for the Ways and Means hearing this June. The balance of operating funds comes from state and local governments, private foundations, and individual supporters. 

Awards and recognition have come generously in recent years to Sullivan and the Fathers’ Support Center. When President George W. Bush visited St. Louis, Sullivan was selected to make a presentation about the center. He’s received the Gold Pin for the President’s Volunteer Service Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Partnership of Community Leadership, was named the 2017 Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award in St. Louis, and received honors from the NAACP, Missouri Association of Social Welfare, Washington University, and the governor of Missouri.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Fathers’ Support Center in March. She is seen here with Halbert Sullivan, Rep. Lacy Clay and aide.

In March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Fathers’ Support Center headquarters. 

“It’s a miracle place,” she said, “a model for the nation.”

Now 67, Sullivan has three living adult children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. He travels to Rochester at least once a year, usually in the summer, to visit five grandchildren as well as longtime friends who live here.

Following is an edited transcript of my recent phone interview with Sullivan:

ROCHESTER BEACON: I hope you don’t mind me saying, yours is a remarkable story of redemption.

HALBERT SULLIVAN: God has truly, truly blessed me. When you talk about redemption, Peter, I was a street-walking, vacant-building living, dope addict crackhead.

ROCHESTER BEACON: And now you’re testifying before the United States Congress.

SULLIVAN: I was just blown away to even have been asked. It was quite an honor.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Let’s talk about your family’s move from Tennessee up to Rochester when you were in your early teens. Where in Rochester did you live?

SULLIVAN: On the west side, a street called Waverly Place, just off Clarissa Street.

ROCHESTER BEACON: And then your family left Rochester after just a year. Why did you stay?

SULLIVAN: I was the oldest of eight children, Peter. My family was very poor and I was always stuck with babysitting. I saw an opportunity to get away from all that. I was doing well in school, got into the Upward Bound program, by 12th grade was taking some classes at the University of Rochester and was one step away from graduation—but instead I went to the penitentiary. I’d gotten involved in the Clarissa Street activity and it was money and I went down the wrong road: drug use and sales, mostly—but not only. 

My nickname, by the way, was “Hammer.” If you were to approach someone in Rochester from the ’60s and ask if they knew Halbert Sullivan, they’d say no, but they would remember Hammer. I was known as Hammer up until I was 43 years old.

I was in and out of incarceration for years, including Auburn Prison where I made drug connections with people from New York City. And when I got out I went straight into the streets again and became a crackhead. I lived in a very dark world there in Rochester from about 1978 to 1993—very dark world for me. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: What happened in ’93?

SULLIVAN: By that time I was back and forth between Rochester and my family in St. Louis and I woke up in St. Louis one Sunday morning at a bus stop after sleeping outside all night on a bench and I said to myself, “I must be crazy. This ain’t me.” I called my sister to come get me. I went into drug rehab and thank God I haven’t relapsed since. 

So, when you talk about redemption, I’m talking about a person who lived a horrible existence: the vacant buildings, the begging for change, the sleeping outside, the not cleaning your body, not changing your clothes. A terrible existence.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you trace some of your problems to having grown up without a father?

SULLIVAN: Yes. It’s very hard for a child to grow up fatherless. I really didn’t know my biological father until I was in my 50s, and my stepfather was a good man but was in and out of my life. Fortunately, my mother was a very strong woman—one of the strongest women you ever want to meet. She made sure all of her kids got education. We couldn’t go outside when we came home from school at 3 o’clock. We had to stay inside and do our homework. Everybody in my family eventually had high school diplomas and I think about four of us got college degrees. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: When you think of American families today, what do you see as the root cause of fatherlessness?

SULLIVAN: If we’re talking about African-American families, I would say racism is probably at the root of a lot of things, but I would tag the welfare system as the major cause of fatherlessness as a whole. 

I call it unintended negative outcome from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which was a federal program started in the 1960s. It was supposed to be a good program where you get this aid, but no man could be in the home. And they were very serious about that—no man could be in the home. I can remember when I was about 12 years old my mother being on welfare for three or four months in Tennessee and the social workers would come to our house at 11 or 12 o’clock at night and look for things that a man might use if he were in the house—like slippers or shaving cream. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: In your Responsible Fatherhood Project—the six-week program sometimes called boot camp—you teach a class on “Redefining Manhood.”  What exactly do you teach men in this class?

SULLIVAN: Well, some of our clients have been brought up on the streets to think that when you make a baby, you’re 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. I say that a father is to be honored but he is also to givehonor—not only to the mother but to the children, too. He brings discipline, and by that I don’t mean hitting kids, I mean bringing structure to the family. And he is a protector, and someone who brings moral values into the home.  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi sits in on a Fathers’ Support Center class.

ROCHESTER BEACON: You speak of moral values. Do you ever get pushback from those on the left who reject traditional moral values and instead promote “moral relativism”?  

SULLIVAN: I don’t get a lot of pushback, at least not to my face. But the type of message I’m sending sort of walks right by the liberals. Many of the programs that liberals talk about, they don’t help people. It might sound good to an individual who’s looking for something for nothing, but it doesn’t actually help people to raise themselves up. My messages are a little different from that. In Congress, when I testified, I didn’t get a whole lot of pushback from liberals, but I did get a great, great response from Republicans.

Overall, though, I’ve gotten equally good support out of both Democrats and Republicans. And some of that is due to the successes, thank God, we’ve been able to enjoy. Regardless of what your political stance is, it’s very difficult to argue with success.

ROCHESTER BEACON: If our mayor were to ask your advice for helping Rochester—particularly with regard to some of the issues that affect our poorest communities—what would you tell her?

SULLIVAN: When I grew up in Rochester, it was known as a model city. It had all the major corporations—IBM, Stromberg-Carlson, Xerox, Kodak—and we had two car factories, General Motors and Delco. Everybody was working. I don’t know what happened. Sometime around the late ’80s was when the deterioration started and it’s just horrible now. I love Rochester. It is the home of my youth. I often can’t wait to get back and see some of the people, but when I get there I often can’t wait to leave—because it is so depressing.

Advise the mayor? I would need to know more about how the city is helping poor people. If communities truly want to help, we have to invest money into adults and that includes fathers. There are issues of economics and there are issues of morality. One reason so many fathers are absent is that they have no job and therefore not enough money. Fathers love children, but if a man doesn’t have the money to buy sneakers or buy ice cream, then he feels he’s let everybody down and pulls himself away. Also, children model their parents’ behavior, and if the parents are not doing the adequate things, the moral things, the child won’t have a chance. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: Have you ever spoken about these issues and about your work to community groups in Rochester?

SULLIVAN: I never have, but I would be honored to have that opportunity. But I’m not really a part of Rochester at this point. You’ve got to be around and be involved. 

I’m happy to do this article, hoping that it may help me be more around in Rochester. In the back of my head I have dreams of one day owning two homes: one in Rochester and one somewhere warmer so when that snow starts in October I can get out of there.

ROCHESTER BEACON: The very fact that you say “when that snow starts in October” means you’re still a Rochesterian!

SULLIVAN: There were places I loved there, up and down Jefferson Avenue, and the parks. I visit now because my grandchildren are there and some of my best friends. I go shopping and take the kids to Seabreeze. I used to love Rochester. I still do. 

Role in Rochester

Might there be a role for the Fathers’ Support Center in Rochester?  

The center itself now has six locations in St. Louis, and receives inquiries from other cities around the country about whether they could open a branch. 

“The answer is yes,” Sullivan says. “We know how to scale it; we know how to replicate it.”  

Already, plans are under way to open in two locations in Illinois: East St. Louis and Belleville. A threshold issue is always funding. By Sullivan’s estimate, minimal staffing—director, financial officer, development director, clerical support, educators, social workers, therapist—would require about $1.5 million over the first three years of operation. 

“That comes out to about $5,000 per expected participant,” he says. “That sounds like a lot of money, but compare it to the $25,000 cost of keeping a man incarcerated for a year, then add in the effect on the local economy from his employment and wages, additional money he pays in child support, plus the long-term value to the children and the community at large of having a responsible father and provider—and I think you’re looking at a bargain.”

One of the original funders of the Fathers’ Support Center in St. Louis was the United Way. I asked our local agency if there might be a role for such an organization in Rochester.

“There has been a real shift in the last 10 years or so toward understanding the critical role dads play in the development of their children,” notes Jennifer Cathy, chief impact officer at the United Way of Greater Rochester. “In Rochester, we do have a handful of great programs with strong leaders that are addressing this—through the county and as well as other local organizations—but they’re not necessarily aligned with one another and sustainability is a factor. If a program like (Fathers’ Support Center) could help align them, add new components, and push forward a robust local fatherhood initiative, it would be incredibly important and exciting to consider … and would likely be embraced by this community.”

Mayor Lovely Warren, too, acknowledges the importance and impact of Sullivan’s work. 

“We are certainly familiar with the Fathers’ Support Center and Mr. Sullivan, and applaud him for the work he is doing,” Warren wrote in response to my query. “While there have been no discussions of bringing the center to Rochester, we are proud to support several programs throughout the county that adhere to its same philosophy. Within city government, we believe that the best way to support fathers and their children is to provide access to good jobs, quality housing, safe and vibrant neighborhoods and better educational opportunities.”

Added Warren: “I am grateful for the work Mr. Sullivan has done, and would be open to future discussions with him.”

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected].

5 thoughts on “A father’s story of redemption

  1. A powerful and important article. Lovenheim pinpoints a critically important aspect of Mr. Sullivan‘s work … redefining “what it is to be a good father” for the fathers in his program. His tough love that establishes rules and boundaries with measurable outcomes helps create a successful path for these fathers.

    As a CASA advocate, this approach is a very important foundation for displaced children as well.

    It is hoped that Mr. Sullivan‘s work continues to get recognized (as done in this important article) so many more fathers can be helped.

  2. As a St. Louisian, I have seen and continue to see first hand the work the Fathers Support Center does and the impact it has on so many men and families. Mr. Sullivan’s story is amazing and gives hope to all that positive change can occur in anyone. He has been a great leader in the St. Louis community and a true role-model for so many men. The Organization he has build is a model that the entire country can learn from.
    When I think of Fathers Support Center, I always think of the phrase, “If you give a person a fish they can eat for a day, but if you teach a person to fish, they can feed their family for a lifetime”. Fathers Support Center is teaching men to fish and feed their families.
    Thank you Halbert, for all you do for the St. Louis community.

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