‘Strengthening Fathers’ program participant speaks with 10 On Your Side

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NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A new program in Norfolk is helping young men transition from life in jail to life as fathers. Back in April, 10 On Your Side reported on the “Strengthening Fathers” program at the UpCenter.

The newly launched program is looking for participants and life coaches. A few weeks ago, we caught up with one of the program’s first graduates, Darius Dennis.

Dennis was released from the Norfolk City Jail in May, and says his daughters motivated him to turn his life around. You could say he works two jobs, one at a local Panera, and the other, being a role model for his three young daughters.

But the road to get here hasn’t been easy.

“I used to make up a lot of excuses,” Dennis says.

He was 18 the first time he went to jail. Soon after, he became a young parent living in the Diggs Town neighborhood of Norfolk. His minimum-wage job wasn’t enough to provide for his new family, so he turned to selling drugs.

“I just got into, you know, what was going on on the outside with me and my friends,” Dennis says.

That spiraled into another trip to jail. Then two more daughters came along. Finally on the third trip, it hit him, everything he did affected the lives of his three daughters.

“I’m not just here to live for myself, I have three kids now,” he says.

Dennis then signed up for the Strengthening Fathers program. He completed all 14 weeks of the program in the Norfolk City Jail. When he was released on May 26, he met his “life coach” Michael Jones.

“The lifestyle inside the institution is very different than when you’re not incarcerated,” says Jones. “So you need somebody to kind of help you navigate getting back into what we call the real world.”

Jones is also a father and works for the Chesapeake Community Services Board. He grew up without his father, so this program is personal.

“I wanted to be a professional helper. That’s what brings me joy, knowing that I can be a part of someone else’s success,” says Jones.

Jones and Dennis have met almost every week since Dennis was released. They don’t have agendas or specific topics to discuss. Instead Jones focuses on developing a relationship.

“I’m here for you, when you need me, however you needs me,” Jones says.

Strengthening Fathers is currently in a number of jails across the region. After our first story aired, 30 men reached out to the UpCenter about the program. So far, six have gone through the training.

“Some of them are ready to change, as you were able to see with Mr. Darius Dennis,” says Dana Watson, who is the program manager. “But, then there are some who aren’t ready to change.”

Retaining these men is always a challenge. So, they’re looking for more participants and more life coaches.

“This is a partnership with the community, it’s not a one-man show,” says Watson.

Dennis has had his fair share of challenges while transitioning out of jail, not only with parenting, but also with finding employment.

“They always have the question, ‘are you a felon?” It’s always a question on that and it makes me feel a certain type of way because I don’t feel like I’m a bad person,” he says.

That roadblock didn’t stop him — he got a job and it keeps him busy. His eyes are now on the future; culinary school, making music, going to college. He sees endless possibilities.

But in those rare moments of doubt, he now sees three reasons to not give up.

“I want to be the person that’s there, that they run to,” Dennis says.