Building a Better Dad

updated 06/21/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/21/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What does it mean to be a man? That's the question a dozen men in an East Harlem classroom are debating. "I thought manhood was, 'I'm better than you, I'm smackin' my girl around,' " offers one father-to-be. "But since I've been coming here, I've found out that a man is responsible. A real man knows what love is." As the students near the end of an eight-week fatherhood course, the message seems to be sinking in. It's a gratifying moment for Robert Carmona, who's directing the debate. "A lot of black and Latino men grow up behind the eight ball," Carmona, 52, tells the students, most of whom have done time or been homeless or drug-addicted. "All we have is our pride and our machismo, and we go nuts with it. But you can always aspire to be better."

Carmona is living proof: In the '60s and '70s, he was a heroin addict and absent father, pulling armed robberies and dipping in and out of prison. Since then the Harlem native has not only reinvented himself but helped more than 30,000 others do the same as cofounder and CEO of STRIVE, a group that uses tough love to help the hard-to-employ find and keep jobs. Now, motivated by his own fatherless upbringing, Carmona has started a program to help men reconnect with their kids and financially support them. "In our communities, grandmothers and mothers have become the mainstays," he says. "I believe our communities could heal and change if our fathers were involved."

Since Carmona's POPS (Paternity Optimizes Potential Success) program began last August, 500 men—either there voluntarily or referred by parole programs or welfare offices—have discovered how to reach out to their kids and navigate the child-support system. Through role-playing, the men learn how to resolve conflicts with their children and improve relationships with the mothers. Dyonne Cameron, who finished the course in October, proposed to the mother of his two kids, Shaneequa Kelly, soon after graduation (see sidebar). Others have a tougher road. Recent grad William Plaskett, 38, hasn't seen three of the four children he's had with different women in years, and the eldest was shot dead nine months ago. But Carmona has given him hope. "It took this group to see that I could be a better father," says Plaskett, an ex-drug user. "Now I have a plan to find my kids and build a relationship with them."

Carmona was also late to embrace fatherhood. His Puerto Rican parents split when he was 6, and his dad, a merchant marine who died in 1997, would only "pop up very periodically," he says. His mom raised four children alone but couldn't fill the void. A promising student, Carmona saw street hustlers as father figures; by 14 he was hooked on heroin, and at 16 he went to prison for drug possession. He was doing drugs eight years later when a girlfriend gave birth to his first child, Malaica, in 1976. Two weeks later he was busted for robbing a liquor store but avoided a five-year sentence by enrolling in a rehab program. "I didn't really go there to change," he says, "but when they started kicking my teeth in about my daughter, that made me listen."

When he emerged at 26, Carmona began his transformation. He enrolled in college, started seeing Malaica on weekends and, in 1978, met his wife, Christina. "He had plans to do something special with his life," recalls Christina, 48, an ESL teacher. He didn't disappoint. After earning a B.A. from The College of New Rochelle in 1979, Carmona followed up with a master's degree in social work from Columbia University in 1982. Two years later he came up with the idea for STRIVE and cofounded it with four friends in the basement of a public-housing complex.

Now the group—which relies on government funding and private donations—operates in 19 U.S. cities as well as London. Carmona's desk at the Harlem office is decorated with pictures of Christina, Malaica, now 28, and second daughter Danielle, 21, who will enter Rutgers University law school in the fall. "She's the one thing," he says, "that I did right from day one." Even so, he doesn't take his success as a father for granted. "I've got to wake up every day," he tells his class of fledgling dads, "and try again."

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