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Families finding life support

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 7/6/2011, 5 p.m.

Family. We're not what we used to be.

Today as we celebrate National Black Family month, our families are scattered near and far and have many faces--single mothers, single fathers, foster parents, grandparents, gay couples, mixed races --all doing their best to raise the future of our community. And, thankfully, help is there--in the form of good ol' fashioned family support, government assistance and grassroots community organizations.

Before World War II, many African American families were down South on the farm, with nearly a dozen children helping mom and dad make a living for everyone who stayed under the same roof--parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

After the war, there was the great migration to the other compass points of America. Homes were split into "nuclear" families consisting of two parents and maybe three children.

As we come out of the "Great Recession" of the 21st century, many African American families find themselves again living three generations under one roof, trying to make ends meet.

"My family took in Bentley as their own," single parent Elyse Mitchell said. "It made me breathe a little easier. Those first two months of sleepless nights were kinda tough."

A student at Pasadena City College, Mitchell currently lives with her parents and recently enjoyed introducing Bentley, her 9-month-old son, to her larger, extended family during their Fourth of July reunion picnic.

"The dad is not a part of his life, so I'm letting him know he has other people," Mitchell said. "My mom and dad are really helping, and Bentley knows people are there for him. They help anyway they can--money, clothes, baby-sitting.

"Being a single mother, it takes encouragement, faith and family to help me," she added. "For nine months my dad and brother have given a father's love to him."

Mitchell, 22, was just getting to know her new boyfriend, but before learning she was pregnant, discovered she wasn't pleased about the relationship.

"I told him when I found out that this was a way to show me that he could be ready to be with me, if he could be there for his child," she said. "He hasn't."

Although the father has visited with Bentley a few times, neither he nor his family have been very supportive.

"They come up with excuses," Mitchell said. "That he's spoiled, this and that. But I'm the one left on 'E' at the end of the day."

"I told him 'he knows when you step out and he'll know when you step back in'," she said. "He'll know the minute you step out the door. He knows your voice now and he knows you're his dad now.

"In our generation they always say don't expect the father to be in his life until after the first year," she added. "But I think it's more so them living in La La Land--they want me to accept their excuses. They want me to feed into it, get a DNA test, anything so they won't have to step in."

Mitchell recently filed for child support.

"He thinks I should let him by, but it's difficult when you're all by yourself," she said, but then remembered her parents and friends and other supporters who've been helping. It has really been a time of growth for her as well as Bentley.

"I used to be quiet and shy, but parenthood is kinda different," Mitchell said. "Since I've been through so much, now I'm open to get advice, talk with friends, hang out, and get things off of my chest that have been (held) in for so long."

Mother and child have received assistance through the L.A. County Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program, which covers day care, and other childhood needs. Mitchell has also received counseling.

"The first two weeks were the hardest," she said. "For all the single mothers, just be strong. If I can do it, you can do it. It takes time, it's not overnight. Any assistance you can get, get it 'cause it's going to help.

"For me, I needed friends," Mitchell said. "My mom and dad really came through. You learn who your real friends are."

One of the other support organizations for the Black family is First 5. A public entity funded by California tobacco tax dollars, helps fund L.A. County community organizations whose efforts, initiatives and programs are aimed at improving the educational outcomes of children during their first five years.

"Best Start is the name of the place-based initiative that we are funding," Melissa Franklin of First 5 said. "We have identified 14 communities across Los Angeles County that are all high-stressed communities where services are needed. By investing in them we know we will really see some change, some improvement in children's outcomes."

Best Start plans to fund things in a coordinated way, with the idea that it is the community itself that will drive the decisions on which programs and services can help.

"We just finished our first year of funding," Franklin said. "It was essentially a planning year, where we have done significant outreach to parents, community residents, key stakeholders, community-based organizations (CBOs) and businesses. They have been attending meetings every three to four weeks and we've had from 25 to 150 people per meeting."

The community partnership will be the decision-makers," she said. "They will decide where we spend the dollars."

"We've been going to places where parents are--schools, preschools resource centers, we've even been organizing some play dates," Amy Williams-Banfield, program officer of Best Start communities said.

"Parents want to develop safe places for their children to play and we give them ideas on things they can do centered around families," Williams-Banfield said. "Exercise obstacle courses, creating healthy snacks--they get it."

One of the recent, successful play dates was held in Helen Keller Park, where more than 200 persons participated in activities centered on the four guiding goals of the initiative:

* Children should be born at a healthy weight

* Children should maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle

* Children should be safe from abuse and neglect

* Children should be ready for kindergarten

Four of the 14 communities are in the South L.A. and serve the highest African American population in the city: Broadway/Manchester; Compton/East Compton; West Athens; and Watts/Willowbrook. Williams-Banfield is the programs officer for this South L.A. region, and recruits parents for the meetings by visiting local service agencies and churches.

"Some of the attendees have been parents, representatives from CBOs, civic leaders, representatives from faith-based entities," Williams-Banfield said. "We do see a lot of single mothers and grandmothers. African American couples rarely come to meetings."

Best Start has gleaned a lot of feedback from these meetings, and more outreach is to be done this summer.

"Consistently, parents definitely want to see a reduction in gang violence," Williams-Banfield said "They would like to have the luxury of walking their children to school. "That's something they can't do in South LA. They only live two or four blocks from their school, but they have to drive because they are concerned about their children's safety.

"They want to have safer parks for their children to play in. They would like farmer's markets so they can shop for low-priced fruits and vegetables."

Some of the Best Start meeting attendees have let Williams-Banfield know that they have a difficult time connecting with resources in their community, consequently needs sometimes go unmet. For example, some women don't get proper prenatal care during pregnancy, because they don't have access nearby or don't know the low-cost resources in their community.

"There are so many challenges in our communities," Franklin said. "All the families here are facing a certain level of poverty. The availability of good prenatal care is the underpinning of this whole effort. That and the idea that every child should have access to those services that children in the more affluent communities have access to."

The 14 communities in the program include: Central Long Beach: Compton, East Compton; East Los Angeles (including City Terrace, Commerce and parts of Monterey Park); El Monte, South El Monte; Lancaster; Metro L. A.; Pacoima; Palmdale; Panorama City; South Los Angeles/Broadway-Manchester; South Los Angeles/West Athens; Southeast Los Angeles County Cities (including Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy and Maywood); Watts-Willowbrook; and Wilmington.

The Best Start project is being funded for five years.

"We anticipate additional funding for another five years," said Best Start Communities Director Randi Wolf. "It takes time to build trust in the community and have families feel a sense of empowerment."

For more information on the Best Start program, and upcoming play dates and meetings, call (213) 482-7527 or visit www.beststartla.org.

Another entity, Great Beginnings for Black Babies, has a program called "The Fatherhood Initiative."

"Our mission is to help fathers play more active roles in caring and supporting their children," program coordinator Roderick Elzy said.

"A lot of these men have an unstable employment history," Elzy added. "We host educational workshops and fathers commit to vocational education programs so they can ultimately improve their economical standing. They are given counseling so they can provide good living for their families and learn that they need to provide emotional as well as financial support.

"We take families to activities--soccer games, exhibits like 'America I Am' at the science museum last year--all to help them engage with their children and promote the father/child bond.

"A lot of men think it takes a lot of money to spend time with their children," Elzy said. "We help make it so they can spend time together so money is not an issue, and we help them understand their role as fathers."

African American fatherhood has really taken a turn recently. Although unemployment is 12 percent in L.A. County, it is over 16 percent among the African American male population. Many fathers are discouraged because they cannot be the breadwinner.

"But their role as a nurturer is just as important," Elzy said. "Caregiving means things like changing diapers, preparing meals and 15 minutes of reading to your child each day. Spending time really does impact a child's development."

"We have to educate them on that," he added. "There's a stigma we're trying to break through. Just because you don't have a lot of money, doesn't mean you can't be there for your child."
More than 53 percent of the fathers have background issues. Sometimes it's only upon their release from incarceration that they learn they were asked to pay child support.

"They get out with a debt they didn't know they had," Elzy said. "It's not your usual deadbeat dad story."

The program gives fathers access to family law attorneys who can assist them with custody, child support, summonses, complaints and visitation issues. Some of the clients have become community leaders--taking a stand against current laws and policies that often result in broken families.

"They become advocates," Elzy explained. "They are empowered, leading 'Back to School' walks; speaking at our Town Hall meetings; and standing before elected officials."

For more information, visit www.fatherhood initiative.org.