Fathers and Families Support Center (FFSC) has helped provide stability to families since its inception in 1997. The last few years have been bittersweet for the organization: it satisfied a dream of a new headquarters in downtown St. Louis and continued successful operations during a pandemic. Yet the loss of founder and CEO Halbert Sullivan this past April hit hard.
Halbert Sullivan was willing to tell anyone about his years in and out of prison and addicted to drugs.
In 1993, after a bout of heavy cocaine use and waking up on a bus stop bench, Halbert checked into a rehab clinic and enrolled in community college. He went on to get a four-year degree from Fontbonne University and a Master of Social Work degree from Washington University in St. Louis.
In 1997, Halbert developed Fathers Support Center from a research project at Washington University, which provided fathers a six-week boot camp of classes to gain the tools to become responsible parents, support their families financially, and work on parenting skills to help their children emotionally and developmentally. The organization expanded its programs to focus on youth in 2002 and women as co-parents in 2015. It added “and Families” to its name in 2019.
Community Outreach Coordinator Reginald Slaughter was a participant of the program in those first two years. He graduated from the program and began working for them a year later. Reginald says Halbert exemplified change and was a constant presence. “He was a CEO who was here every single day. When you have leadership like that, it [his death] hurts every single day because it’s a void. He put so much into us, that we know what we’ve got to do.”
Halbert would often visit the classes. If a student arrived late, Reginald says Halbert would tell them in front of the class, “If I can do it, you can do it. And there will be no excuses in his program.” The phrase “No Excuses” is displayed in each classroom.
Reginald laughs about the time U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to visit the organization in 2019. “She was fun. She was too comfortable,” he says. Upon hearing Halbert’s story, she suggested Halbert have a movie made about him. He wanted Denzel Washington to portray him.
Director of Employment Services Jarrett Kendall says Halbert instilled a sense of continuing no matter what. “Everybody has to know everybody’s part,” he says. “If one person is not here, the ball is never going to stop moving.”
To read more about Halbert’s life and accomplishments.
FFSC’s core programs are Family Formation for fathers and Parenting in Partnership (PIP) for mothers. In both courses, parents are taught parenting and life skills weekdays for six weeks. While parents are in classes, and for one year after, they have access to a legal team and a social worker on staff.
Parents are taught how to create a budget and choose healthy food options within that budget. They also learn how to fix credit issues. FFSC partners with Prosperity Connections via St. Louis Community Credit Unions.
A career advisor teaches employment readiness skills, interview skills, and how to dress for success. A large closet of dress clothes and a salon are available to parents. FFSC holds job fairs several times a year. Michelle Echols, Project Coordinator for the PIP program, says, “We put them in front of employers who are there for the purpose of actually hiring the people we put in front of them.” After job placement, FFSC continues to assist parents with bus tickets, gas cards, job-specific tools, and help getting a uniform. “Let’s face it, when you start a job,” Michelle says, “you don’t have money to buy all of that stuff.”
Family therapists are available for group or individual sessions. Michelle says, “Many of us in our community have faced so many traumatic experiences and we don’t know how to deal with it. We don’t know how to identify them. We don’t know the next step. We pray them away and leave it alone.”
A “What’s up Circle” is held each morning before class to tie in personal experience with current lessons. Michelle says it allows the men to be emotional with other men without judgment and the women to connect to others with similar trauma. “They come in very closed off, but as the weeks go on, they’re open books.”
FFSC is one of the hubs for the Neighborhood Healing Network, an organization that addresses individual crime victims and victimized communities. Community Resource Specialist Kiihandra Jones speaks to parents about gun violence, domestic violence, car jackings and other uncomfortable conversations, finding someone affected by violence in every class. She meets with families weekly and connects them with Crime Victim Center.
The staff members lead by example, sharing their own stories:
- Kiihandra talks about being shot in 2019 and how she is still working through it, “My daughter just recently started talking about it. She thought I was dead when they told her that I got shot.”
- Reginald said the talking sessions helped him realize why he felt compelled to buy many pairs of nice shoes. He grew up with a brother with the same sized shoe and says, “We always had to share shoes. I never had my own set of shoes!”
- Jarrett lets participants know about the deep depression and thoughts of suicide he had after his mother’s death. He tells them, “We’re dealing with the same stuff you went through, we just had people to help us get through it and that’s what we’re here for.”
Incarceration to occupation pipeline
FFSC collaborates with the Missouri Department of Corrections on FFSC’s Re-Entry Project, which allows clients to participate in Family Formation classes at the Transition Center of St. Louis. Upon completion, the students receive a certificate of graduation and can enroll in other FFSC programs.
Jarrett spent much of his life in sales and currently works with up to 60 employers to find careers, ideally at $14 per hour. “I’ve been on the human resources side,” he says, “I know what employers are looking for.” Jarrett helps participants overcome the barrier of a potential employer’s trust by telling them, “It’s going in with the energy and a smile, and if you can win them over, you can do whatever you want to.” He is also aware that some of his students have limited life experience. “We have gentlemen who don’t know how to interview with a woman—never sat across someone who’s [a different] race than them.”
Jarrett says in early 2020 he was able to place 50 participants in jobs, particularly in manufacturing and logistics because everyone was leaving them. Wages were also increasing, he says. Cleaning jobs went from around $13 dollars to $19. At the end of 2020, he says they placed 270 people. For the last five years, one of Jarrett’s roles has also been visiting federal and state prisons: three in Missouri and one in Arkansas. Soon, he will be adding one each in Indianapolis and Memphis. He spends about three hours per week at each institution teaching an abbreviated version of their re-entry classes.
Adjusting to a pandemic
When the pandemic started, FFSC transitioned to virtual classes. It offered incentives to pay phone or internet bills. Bus tickets and gas cards were also available. Participants were offered a grocery card for each week of perfect attendance and not violating classroom rules. If participants are unable to get a card one week, they could still earn them the rest of the weeks. Participants still had to stop by the office once a week to turn in their paperwork, pick up incentives, or talk to a staff member.
Virtual classes allowed participants to attend class while working or while at home with their children attending school by computer. Attendees could mute themselves, complete a task, then return to the class. Michelle says, “That’s been a big plus, because of the increase in enrollment and awareness of where we are.” In August 2020, FFSC expanded to a location at 505 South 8th St. in East St. Louis, Il.
Michelle appreciates how she can have back-to-back meetings without traveling. “I can be with Better Family Life, Urban League, and Normandy School District all in one day.”
FFSC held several virtual job fairs, utilizing breakout rooms to allow participants to speak one-on-one with an employer. In May, they had their first in-person hiring fair since COVID-19.
Halbert wasn’t a fan of virtual meetings—too many distractions—and was eager to be in the new headquarters at 1601 Olive Street. The first thing you notice in the large foyer is the huge Fathers’ Wall of Wisdom along the curved staircase to the second floor. The project displays quotes to honor fathers of organizational donors. A quote attributed to Boyd W. Knapp says, “I put you on my shoulders so you can see further down the road.”
Halbert had big shoulders indeed, and his staff is ready to continue his legacy. Reginald says Halbert’s spirit is still there, saying, “It’s over. Now, go back to work.”