Taking Back the Community: Up Center, HRRJ begin mentorship program

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — There’s a new partnership with the Hampton Roads Regional Jail that begins Monday.

Strengthening Fathers is one of three transitional programs across the country that’s funded by a federal grant. Fathers between the ages of 16 and 24 who are at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail can sign up.

It’s been about a month and a half since the doors of Ronald Barnett’s restaurant opened. With its bright colors, arcade games and the endless supply of cotton-candy, it’s all his.

“I am the cook, I am the server sometimes, I’m the cashier and the manager and the owner, too,” said Barnett.

Barnett puts in a lot of long hours and the road to get here hasn’t been easy.

“There was really nothing out there for me. You know criminal background, it doesn’t matter what kind of criminal background it is,” he said.

Barnett went to jail when he was younger. He admits he made some bad choices and he’s worked every day since then to reinvent himself — knowing there are three young children relying on him.

“That actually was most of my motivation, my children,” Barnett said. “When you’re engaged in criminal activity and you spend time in jail or prison, you’re not able to be there for them.”

Barnett is thankful his family was there for him, but he knows there are many young men who don’t have that kind of support. That’s why he’s becoming a mentor through the new Strengthening Fathers program.

“I want to give them my experience, just my situational experience,” Barnett said. “I want to be an example to them that there are other ways to make it.”

Norfolk’s Up Center created the program. It starts with a 14-week parenting course inside of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

“It will focus on helping the fathers who are involved in the program with strengthening their parenting skills, understanding the importance of attachment, how it impacts the life of their children,” said Michael Sanderson, who is the reentry case manager for Strengthening Fathers.

Once the participants are released, they’ll be matched up with mentors in the community.

“These are men who may have had charges, felony convictions,” said Dana Watson, the program manager of Strengthening Fathers. “They’ve had difficulty in finding employment for themselves and some of these men have turned out to be entrepreneurs.”

One of those entrepreneurs is Tower Ketter, who has owned his own electrical company for nearly two years. He grew up in Norfolk and also spent time behind bars.

“You get caught up in the wrong crowd and you get in trouble. You know some of your friends go to jail, some friends just drop out of school,” Ketter said.

He realized that wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“I knew doing the wrong thing wasn’t going to get nothing out of it but going back in there.”

So, he learned a trade, started working and now he is his own boss, despite his past.

“Everybody doesn’t give out second chances to you. Some people are going to hold that grudge with you anyway,” said Ketter. “So you have to accept that, you know you made that mistake.”

The father of four has looked beyond other people’s past, hiring men who have spent time in jail and even doing the electrical work inside of Barnett’s restaurant.

“Nothing is easy. Especially for somebody coming into the program,” said Barnett. “But it’s going to be even harder, like three times, four times, five times harder coming from where you’re coming from.”

The odds may have been stacked against them, but both of these men have shown it’s possible to succeed in business and in family. Now, they are ready to share that message with the young men who need it.

“If you could save one person, that’s a lot,” said Ketter.

The Up Center already has a handful of mentors, but they need more. If you’d like to get involved, or know someone who would, contact Dana Watson at dana.watson@theupcenter.org or 757-623-1119 Ext. 146.