sam_at_tuskegee_university_web.jpg(Special to South Florida Times) -Sam Brown was known on the football field and at city pools as someone neighborhood youths could look up to.

Now, at age 29, the former Dillard High School wide receiver and community lifeguard is trying to help men in his community become better fathers through a 12-week Fatherhood Mentorship Program. 

“I just want black men in my community to step up and help erase the stereotypical images of us as deadbeat dads and an endangered species,” said Brown, the program’s coordinator. “I want people to picture us as school teachers, executives and role models for our children.”

The Fatherhood Mentorship Program is part of the Best for Broward Babies campaign, a countywide initiative launched by Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Broward County to reduce the infant mortality rate in the county’s predominantly black neighborhoods.

The program provides fathers aged 20-39 from three neighborhoods with mentors and workshops on topics such as parenting, job training, infant care and child development, as well as men’s health issues.

More than 40 men have joined the program which started Jan. 19 and the list is growing, organizers said. The fathers meet Wednesday nights at Joseph C. Carter Park, 448 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. They get tips on how to be better parents, support one another and look for ways to improve the quality of life for their children.

Cynthia Holmes, Community Health Program manager for Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies said the mentorship program has exceeded expectations.

“Previous recruitment efforts failed to attract fathers from the community,” Holmes said, “but, when Sam joined the staff, he hit the streets, community centers and local neighborhoods to get the men to participate.”

Now the program has more men trying to sign up than funding permits, a positive sign as the agency looks ahead to its second year of operation.

“He went to the street corners and neighborhood parks,” said Holmes, who hired Brown. “Because he lives and grew up in the community, he was able to establish a relationship with the fathers. They believe and trusted this program would be beneficial." 

The Father Mentorship Program was created because statistics show that babies whose fathers are absent during pregnancy are four times more likely to die in the first year of life.  In Broward County, black babies die at twice the rate for white babies and health officials say 40 percent of the deaths are preventable.

Research has also shown that children whose fathers are highly involved in their lives are healthier physically and emotionally and have better social development skills.

Brown, a social worker and father of four, knows first-hand the challenges that many dads face.  He became the father of twin daughters at age 17.

“I realized that I couldn’t be dependent on my parents anymore because I was a parent myself,” Brown said.  “It changed who I was as a person because I had to mature.”

Brown said he learned a lot from his own father, who, after separating from his wife for three years, returned home and got his son back on track when he began acting up in middle school.

“Fathers bring discipline and structure. When my father wasn’t around, I took advantage of my mother,” Brown said. “My father came back in the middle of ninth grade and set things straight. When my grades started going up, he bought me my first car and said as long as I stayed in school and did the right thing he would do anything for me.”

Brown took his father at his word and improved his grades. By age 15, he was a recreational counselor with the Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation Department and then he became a lifeguard. Upon graduating from Dillard High, he received a full football scholarship to Tuskegee University in Alabama, where he graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s in social work.

“I’m going into the homes, trying to reach the fathers, because that’s where it starts as far as discipline and values go,” he said. “True education starts in the home.”