‘Fathers are a brotherhood’: A Philly mentor program doesn’t want dads to learn fatherhood alone

Focus on Fathers was established in 2001 to help new dads transition to fatherhood. Since then, the program has served over 250 fathers.

A man is holding his baby boy in his arms.

Focus on Fathers program manager Larry Woody holding his son, Colin, in 1996. (Courtesy of Woody)

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At 17 years old, Brandon Brown was attending St. Joseph’s Preparatory School when he got some unexpected news that changed his life forever — he was going to be a dad.

The realities facing Brown were almost too difficult to comprehend. In retrospect, nothing could have prepared him for the moment.

He was already in a tenuous and challenging relationship with the mother of his child. Almost immediately, Brown found himself in a situation where he would become a single-parent father.

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“I don’t think there’s anything that you could have told me at the age of 17,” he said. “I think anybody would have a problem walking into the unknown … I think no one wants their child to fail. I believe that everybody wants their child to exceed them.”

But despite the new challenges in his life, Brown continued to pursue his career aspirations. He attended Temple University, where he now works at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine Center for Urban Bioethics.

And although he has enjoyed a stable life, there’s one thing he’s always trying to be — a better father.

“I think no matter where you are, no matter what space you’re in,” he said, “if you allow it, there is a teachable moment.”

Last year, a friend introduced him to a group called Focus on Fathers, a Philly-based fatherhood support program that became an impactful resource for Brown.

“As men, having spaces of support are crucial — and if I had to double down — I would say to have spaces for fathers of color would be even more essential,” he said. “Spaces where there’s no judgment — that encourages reflection … introspection … self-assessment — and allowing you to look at the mirror and to give yourself some praise, as well as say, ‘I can do a little better.’”

Focus on Fathers (FOF) was founded in 2001 with the specific aim of helping mentor Philadelphia dads and teaching about the transition of fatherhood. Since becoming established, the non-profit has enrolled roughly 250 Philly-area dads in its program.

The group has reached participants in several ways, including group education sessions, co-parenting sessions, mental health guidance and career readiness and financial coaching.

FOF also strives to reach dads burdened socioeconomically with complex personal traumas and challenging family histories.

“We’re not forcing anything down anyone’s throat. Our approach is discussion, so we just listen to the guys in the class,” said Larry Woody, program manager of Focus on Fathers.

One of the program’s offerings is called “24/7 Dad,” a series of 13 in-person and virtual classes over 13 weeks. Some of the classes include “Dads and Work,” “What it Means to Be a Man” and “The Father’s Role.”

But the rules are not so rigid, Woody said.

“So very often, we know what we wanted to talk about that day, but if they’re really caught up on custody, we’re going to give that some time because that’s where they want to go. And I think that’s why a lot of men appreciate it,” he said.

The program also focuses heavily on how fatherhood and parenting impacts children.

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“I make sure no one loses sight that we’re really doing this for the children,” he said. “Children don’t get to decide, and so what we’re trying to do is to make these guys better parents … to understand that they actually are important to their children no matter what the media says.”

When Brandon Brown joined Focus on Fathers, what struck him the most was the diversity of fathers in the program – who were still bonded by a shared experience.

“Fathers are almost like a brotherhood – a fraternity in which regardless of where you are when you get in, you have an opportunity to support people that have come behind you,” he said.

Brown has two daughters now. His first daughter is 37 and his second child is 13. Brown has come to recognize that life becomes “intrinsically different” during fatherhood.

“There’s a difference between masculinity and fatherhood,” Brown said. “I think it might be hard for men to switch because perhaps the way that many men are raised. We’re raised to be, or to conceive to be, providers – to be tough. However, when you look at marriage or when you look at children, you have to be almost just the opposite. You have to be vulnerable. You have to be available. And I think that is oftentimes the beautiful challenges of when you become a father.”

For fathers everywhere, Brown has this message:

“Hug your children. Tell your children that you love them. Give them time that is not distracted. You can’t want consistency but be inconsistent.”

He’s lived by a simple mantra — children cannot be a priority when they’re treated like an option. For Brown, it’s “mandatory.”

“I think it was James Baldwin that said a child cannot be what they cannot see. So if you wish to show love and positive regard, you have to be that embodiment so that the kid might not be able to know what it is, but they can know what it is to experience it.”

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