Parenting Awareness Prevents Abandonment Program Trains Teen Fathers

Dec 21, 2002 11:57 AM EST

Founder of this program wants teen fathers to learn how to be better parents and he wants to see it replicated in churches across the country.

While there are many projects helping teen moms, there are very few for teen dads, even though one study estimates that there are more than a million fathers in the United States between age 16 and 25 -- half of whom don't live with their children. Teens who became fathers had parents with fewer years of education, had more siblings, and were much more likely to have grown up in a home below the poverty line.

Greg Horta, founder of PAPA program, would like to improve the lives of this generation of teenage fathers. He believes this could help congregations reach out to some in the local community they might not otherwise reach, he tells "New Man" magazine in an article in the January/February issue, out today.

"We'd have to make it clear that we don't want to judge, that we just want to help," he says. But "if we promote it properly and go to after-school programs or neighborhoods where kids are hanging out and if we are real and straight-up with the guys we will earn their respect."

That has been the case in New York City, where Horta recruits young men for his program by handing out fliers in train stations, parks and schools on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The six-week PAPA class teaches skills such as résumé writing, learning the difference between a baby's hungry cries and tired cries, cooking and how to talk to children. Through teen parent services, counseling, educational enrichment and job search assistance, these young fathers are able to move their lives in a different direction.

"I learned that communication is the key to everything," said Sean Kellmen, a 19-year-old graduate of the class. "One thing I do is explain to my daughter why I'm doing things, but I realized I can do that with everyone. My girlfriend and I talk much better now. Everything is so much easier."

At 300 pounds, 32-year-old Horta has won the nickname "Big Papa," and is not afraid to offer some tough love when he feels it is needed. His confidence in handling rough young men comes in part from having grown up in the Bronx, where his brothers were enmeshed in gangs and drugs. He also has his own fathering challenges, trying to stay in touch with a daughter from a previous marriage and serving as father-figure to a 5-year-old stepson.

He told one 20-year-old father who raised his voice to his girlfriend during a telephone disagreement: "If you think getting loud will solve the problem, it won't. It'll make things worse. You need to call someone and talk it over. You can call me."

Horta has also learned to balance his ability to confront with compassion since becoming a Christian through Fordham Manor Reformed Church in the Bronx. "I realized that if I am going to be harsh, I can't leave it like that," he says. "I have to show them that I am still open. I have to let them know I still care. It's not all about confronting them."

From his experience, he believes teen fathers outside church have more in common with Christians than many might at first believe. "They go through the same things we do," he says.

"They want to be loved, involved and given responsibility, and not labeled."

"That's the same way we are in the church. I don't see myself as high and mighty. I'm there to serve these guys, so they let me in. I feel honored by that."

Horta is an ideal role model for these young men. His life story provides hope and guidance for the men in the program.

By Sophia Yu