“Do you deserve a cookie?” her father, Eugene Anderson, responds with mock sternness. Then he smiles. “Give me a hug first.”
Desiree wraps her arms around Anderson’s neck, and he plants a fat kiss on her cheek. “Okay,” he relents. “Just one.”
Father and daughter are on an outing to The National Zoo in Washington, DC, accompanied by Donald H. Christian–the man instrumental in bringing them together. Christian, 56, is codirector of Hey SF, a government-funded program based in San Francisco, CA that helps fathers like Anderson–young, unmarried, and with a history of run-ins with the law–play a positive role in their children’s upbringing.
Since launching the program in 1995, Christian has assisted about 50 young fathers between the ages of 14 and 28, most referred by county social workers and high school nurses. He turns to church groups and business associations to find mentors, all of whom spend a minimum of two hours a week with their charges–whether on the phone, at a ball game, or over a cup of coffee. “In this society there’s a lot of focus on helping young, unwed mothers,” notes mentor Ray Torres, a 38-year-old computer analyst. “The fathers get left out.”
Anderson, one of Christian’s first “clients,” had been through a tough adolescence: He ran with a bad crowd, was charged with drug possession, and lost half of his stomach after being hit by multiple bullets in a drive-by shooting. But when his girlfriend decided she wanted nothing to do with their baby, Desiree, Anderson, now 28, decided to seek custody. “My mother didn’t give me up, and I wasn’t going to give her up,” he says simply.
The first time Christian saw Anderson, they were outside a courtroom where Anderson was about to petition the court for custody. “He had on tennis sneakers, a jogging suit, and a gold medallion that must have weighed forty pounds,” Christian recalls. “I thought, My Cod.” The next time Anderson appeared in court, he was sporting a blazer, a white shirt, a tie, and business shoes–all courtesy of Christian. And thanks to his coaching, Anderson’s testimony was much more articulate. Eventually, he won custody.
Christian himself grew up fatherless. During his 30 years with the Washington, DC, police force, he was constantly disturbed to find that when he went into public housing “there were never any fathers around.” Six months into retirement, he learned that a county program for young dads was in the works, and he decided to apply for the directorship.
Christian encourages his “guys” to let down their macho facades and be affectionate with their children. He admits that he wasn’t always there to supply hugs for his own kids. When his two sons, Bryan, now 29, and Keith, 32, reached adolescence, Christian was ardently pursuing his career, eventually rising to become deputy chief of police in Washington, DC. “I made a lot of sacrifices, and in a lot of ways, I sacrificed them,” he admits.
Now he’s helping other dads to do the right thing. His latest effort is a campaign to persuade local businesses to offer entry-level jobs to DADS graduates: “It’s grand to tell the guys you can do this and that, but you have to give them some way to get the Pampers and the shoes, and do it legitimately.”
As for Anderson, he hopes to become a mentor himself someday and pass on what he’s learned. “He’s on his way,” says Christian, sounding like a proud father.