Unprepared, Unwanted and Unwed, Adolescent Fathers Get a Helping Hand from Counselor Ron Johnson

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

If you didn't know better, you might suppose that Robert, 18, and Darryl, 17, were having a heart-to-heart about the art of the turn-around jumper. They are the right age: the 18-year-old instructing the 17-year-old, their bodies still sparrow thin, gestures still awkward after the quick growth of adolescence. But that's not the subject of discussion. Robert and Darryl are here as part of a rap group set up by a counselor to teen fathers, Ron Johnson; they are talking about their babies and jobs. "If you don't have a job, buddy, you better get one," Robert is advising. "You're looking at Pampers now, but as the baby grows...." Darryl listens closely. He has been a father for only five months. Robert's daughter is now 2, and he knows.

There are more than a million teenage pregnancies in America each year. It has become "a national concern" and its symbol is a grotesquely, inappropriately big-bellied young girl. It is an outrageous picture, but few people care to look past their outrage to the far more important time when one million newborns begin their difficult path through life. And even fewer care to look as hard as Ron Johnson, who feels these fathers owe something important to both the babies and themselves. A streetwise former ghetto gang member, Johnson, 32, is director of the Teen Fathers program at the Youth and Family Center in Lawndale, a nonprofit agency 13 miles southwest of L.A. The center deals with every aspect of early pregnancy in the Ingle-wood and Centinela Valley areas, and Johnson has been responsible for persuading some 40 young men like Robert and Darryl to behave like the fathers they are. The program offers tutoring as well as counseling on being a parent, sex and employment (including how to fill out a job application). Johnson is both demanding and sympathetic. "We challenge them to do better, to hold on, be strong," he says. "And to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. We challenge them to be men. Most teenage fathers want to be with their children, but they can't support the child, and it's hard to feel good about yourself as a man if you earn only $4 to $5 an hour."

Forty youths out of one million are, in their own way, also a frightening statistic, especially considering the effort required to make even this small dent. "My first job is to go out and get these guys," Johnson says. "We have to beat the bushes. We speak at high schools, go to every coach in every school, to the churches and to the streets. We go to hangouts where they sell drugs to get money for the child and girlfriend. We hang our cards around town."

Once the young fathers are found, it doesn't get any easier. Some of them assume Johnson is from the DA's office out to collect child support (one young man threatened to shoot him). But many phone calls and talks later, about 70 percent of them come to the center. Typically, they are out of school and out of a job and ashamed of their helplessness as a parent. If they try to help, they usually are not welcomed by the girl or her parents, who, Johnson says, "feel he's caused enough problems." He simply tells them they must overcome all that. "Even if they don't have the money, they should spend time with their children," he says. "Money may come later."

The counselors advise fathers in school to stay there, but if a client is ready for a job, they will help him find one. Usually it's low paying and with a fast-food franchise, which Johnson calls "the new plantations." But he and his colleagues plan to introduce a placement program and have already made contact with paperhangers, plumbers, electricians and others willing to take on the unskilled. Recently Johnson and some of his young fathers even invented a job: selling newspapers outside local churches after services. "They make more money in one day selling papers than their peers make at McDonald's in four," he boasts. "They are responsible for the business's success or failure. They learn about themselves."

Johnson also offers homier counseling: how to change a diaper ("Don't say, 'Oh, shit!' Say in a soft voice, 'You done a good job.' Babies have to clean out their systems"), how to mix formula, and even how to hold a baby. "A lot of these guys pick up a child like they pick up a basketball," he says, smiling.

Ron Johnson knows the value of a steadying father. His mother was only 5'4" but formidable: "She'd say, 'This isn't what you do,' and we wouldn't do it; otherwise she'd beat us to death." Yet without the presence of her alcoholic husband (even though he visited regularly), she couldn't keep her six boys from joining gangs in south Brooklyn. Two brothers went to jail and a third became a teen alcoholic, although all have since become college graduates. "Fourteen of the 17 guys I hung out with are dead today," he says. But Ron at 12 met Pedro Vialet, a martial arts teacher who saw promise in him and, taking him as a pupil, instilled self-discipline and a sense of worth. "He was a friend, big brother, confidant and father image," remembers Johnson. Vialet pointed the boy toward an Upward Bound program at Columbia University, where he went on to an undergraduate degree in biology and, after 13 years of teaching, arrived in Lawndale.

"Farmers don't lay back in the house," Johnson is telling his once reluctant charges. "They get up every morning and say, 'I planted the seeds. Now I'm gonna nurture them.' Just because you have a child doesn't mean you're a man." The rap session has been laced with practical advice (don't flaunt your new girlfriend to your baby's mother), but it has stressed one message: caring for a baby represents manhood.

Robert, the 18-year-old, has been brought in as a success story. Stoned and broke when he entered the program just a year ago, he hadn't seen his daughter, Kisha, in six months. Now he is a high school grad taking junior college courses while working full-time as a security guard. Although no longer involved with Kisha's mother, Robert sees his child on weekends and contributes groceries, diapers and shoes for her. "Why don't you tell how you felt when Kisha was born?" Johnson asks him, meaning the time before he gave up, then regained, hope.

Robert grins. "I took her places and showed her off," he says proudly. "It felt reeeal good, just looking at her, raising her, watching something growing. There was something good in life. I had something I could say is mine."

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