September 15, 2014
When Sheldon Smith, 25, talks to or about his 5-year-old daughter Jada, he becomes a different person.
He’s stern: “OK, sit up straight now,” says Smith, founder of The Dovetail Project, his voice immediately garnering a flagpole stance from the child slouching on his lap.
Or Smith is just mush: “You OK? We’re almost done, Boo-Boo,” he says when she fidgets.
Smith, of Avalon Park, runs a program that’s been turning boys into men, then fathers, since March 2010.
“First, we teach manhood,” says Smith, chatting at the East 47th Street offices of his fatherhood initiative program, which last week graduated 12 men between ages 17 and 24, considered at-risk or high-risk and hailing from communities including Avalon Park, Englewood and Roseland.
As a teen, Smith shared their characteristics — growing up in Woodlawn, one of five children of his mother, Lilly Armstrong, who had her first child at 14, her last at 21. Smith’s mother and father separated when he was in elementary school.
“My father was primarily in and out of my life, in and out of jail,” he says. “My mother struggled raising us.
“A strong woman. Stayed dedicated to her children. All five of us are doing very successful things today.”
Smith’s program, using a curriculum created out of his desire to help young fathers like himself, with input from experts at the University of Chicago, provides participants with parenting, life and job-readiness skills over the course of 12 weeks.
“We look at life skills, focusing on how do you engage employers, how do you stay employed, what is a resume, how should your voicemail sound when an employer contacts you?” he says. “Then, it’s financial literacy.
“And then we focus on felony street law — all about child support, what rights does a father have in the state of Illinois, do you have to file a petition for guardianship?”
Smith says he relates to the 150 young men who have graduated from his program with the help of grants from the Open Society Foundations and other supporters .
Smith had been a good kid who stayed on track through his sophomore year at Chicago Vocational High School, where he was a starting middle linebacker on the football team. He also had the benefit of involvement with a nonprofit mentoring program, the Metropolitan Area Group for United Civilization, from the age of 13.
“I was a lead youth organizer, working around such issues as youth and gang violence, HIV and AIDS, employment, juvenile justice,” he says. “I was trained and spoke nationally.”
Then came the day in June 2006 when Smith, then 16, was arrested for armed robbery.
“I still had struggles, and one particular day, it was my birthday, and I just felt against the world.,” he says. “I didn’t get ice cream. I didn’t get a cake. I didn’t get a hug. I didn’t get any love, and I felt the world owed me something. The world didn’t owe me anything.
“It was being around a lot of friends who talked about, ‘Hey, we robbed somebody, and we were able to do this and do that. You should try it. Maybe you can have a good birthday.’ It was a birthday in jail.”
Because of Smith’s stellar record, the judge agreed that it was an aberration. He was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser offense of aggravated robbery and get out of jail after five months.
Smith went back and graduated from his high school with certification in carpentry and enrolled in community college. Jada was born when he was 19, and Smith realized he didn’t know anything about parenting. He began seeking information on parenting skills, researching and talking with mentors he had at U. of C.
“I didn’t want to give my daughter the same thing my father gave me,” he says. “I was able to become a better man and a better father, but I said, you know, there are a lot of my friends who lack the same thing I lack.”
Smith got a $3,000 seed grant from the Crossroads Foundation, and The Dovetail Project was born, operating several sessions a year at the Chicago Park District’s Jackson Park Fieldhouse. The program helps participants obtain a GED, employment or trade, giving them a $200 stipend when they complete the program.
“What do you do for a young man who is trying to be involved in his children’s life and there are things in life blocking him? You give them an opportunity.”