Mijajuan Sampson was five years old when he heard gunshots for the first time.
It was the rush of blood that he will never forget.
“It was a lot…blood gushing out of his neck and his back,” said Sampson, 28.
Running outside with his family, he saw a dear family friend sprawled on a Washington, D.C. street, lifeless. Mijajuan had called him Uncle.
Years later in high school, he dealt with the murders of his father and his 5-month-old sister and the death of his grandmother.
After that he stopped going to high school.
Today, the young African-American male, is striving for a better life, hand in hand with an organization known as Concerned Black Men (CBM).
Since its founding in 1975 by a handful of Philadelphia police officers hoping to fill what they saw was a void in positive African-American male mentors, CBM has touched the lives of thousands of African-American men, according to CBM Executive Director George Garrow.
The organization has more than two-dozen chapters around the country with the national office in Washington, D.C.
“People are aware of the challenges in the African-American community and organizations like CBM are trying to step in the gap so these men can be men again,” Garrow told theGrio.
In partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF), CBM is helping African-American fathers connect with their children.
ACF recently awarded nearly $120 million grant awards for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood as part of the Obama administration’s effort to support programs that help fathers and families build strong relations for the well-being of their children.
“A strong and stable family is the greatest advantage any child can have,” stated Sheldon, ACF acting assistant secretary, in a press release.
White House Deputy Assistant to the President, Michael Strautmanis said in a press call that Obama is facing a sense of urgency with the crisis of absent fathers.
“Every statistic that we see here at the White House, in the cabinet and the various agencies….points to the fact that too many children in this country are growing up without their dads,” Strautmanis said.
He continued, citing research that those children were more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and experience low academic performance.
“This country cannot afford this right now,” he said.
Since the mid-90s, CBM has engaged African-American fathers to embrace their responsibilities by playing a more active role in the lives of their children.
The recent grant award of nearly $800,000 was part of the $59,396,652 awarded earlier this month for the responsible fatherhood initiative. Other ‘fatherhood’ grantees include: The RIDGE Project, Inc. in Defiance, Ohio; Father’s Support Center St. Louis, Inc. in Minn.; Lexington Leadership Foundation in Ky.; and the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program in El Centro, Calif.
The remaining portion, $59,997,077 was distributed to ‘healthy marriage’ grantees including: First Things First in Chattanooga; Family Guidance, Inc. in Sweickley, Pa; and SGA Youth & Family Services in Chicago. Organizations were competitively selected for the grants aimed to test promising strategies for supporting healthy relations and marriages and for helping fathers meeting their parenting and financial obligations to their children, according to ACF.
In essence, the grant is a validation that CBM’s fatherhood strategy is working.
“We’ve implemented the fatherhood initiative curriculum and we’ve been recognized by the Obama administration and by the everyday people in this community,” Leroy Hughes, CBM National Organization Chief Operating Officer, told theGrio.
The grant money will be used to continue and expand the services provided to fathers and families to include life skills, adult basic education, workforce development and job training and placement, parenting skills, parent support groups and child enrichment programs.
Along with the economic struggles plaguing many African-American families, CBM must also grapple with deeper sociological factors.
Hughes said the organization is fighting to dispel the stereotype that African-American fathers don’t have healthy interactions with the children.
It’s a stereotype that Mijajuan does not want to be a part of. So not only has he learned how to become more patient with his 2-year-old son, with the supportive guidance of facilitators in CBM’s fatherhood curriculum, but Mijajuan also monitors pop culture influences on his son.
That means, no SpongeBob SquarePants — and other television shows Mijajuan deems as “too violent.”
Mijajuan was recently awarded custody of his son, who is also named Mijajuan. He said during the eight-month custody battle, he realized how much his son meant to him and that he needed to learn how to be a better father.
“I needed more structure because I have a big family but it’s a dysfunctional family,” Mijajuan said. “My siblings help me out sometimes but there were still things I needed to know.”
It’s an anecdote that has become familiar with facilitators at CBM. Former convicts, homeless men and substance abusers have gone through the fatherhood program.
53-year-old, Richard (who chose not to mention his last name) was one of them.
He said he struggled with illegal drug addiction for most of his life. It’s an addiction that has brought him face-to-face with shame on a number of occasions.
“Me and my oldest daughter’s mother used to get high on crack cocaine and my daughter came out of her room one day and saw what we were doing,” Richard said.
Though he tried to hide the drug, his daughter had already caught him. Drug abuse was not the only issue Richard dealt with.
Growing up, Richard held a deep resentment toward his parents for their inconsistent presence in his childhood. That resentment was affecting his relationship with his own children.
It was during a drug addiction program that he met a facilitator from CBM. He started going to one of CBM’s D.C.-area sites and says the skills he learned in the fatherhood curriculum are invaluable. He saw himself beginning to communicate better with his five children.
These types of transformations and everyday stories of empowerment are what inspire the likes of Wayne Salter, Director of the CBM National Organization’s Parent and Family Services, which includes the Fatherhood Initiatives.
“The successful stories are numerous,” he told theGrio. “We’ve had a generational impact.”
One memorable impact narrates the reunion of a grandfather, recovering from substance abuse, with his son, transitioning back into society after incarceration. The two had joined separate CBM sites in Washington, D.C., unknowing of the other’s presence. Today, the two enjoy a better relationship, with the bond of a grandson, also.
Over the past 5 years, more than 700 fathers have completed the curriculum since CBM first formalized it about six years ago. At that time, CBM received a 5-year ACF grant of $250,000. Since then, the curriculum has been streamlined, as the organization learned what worked and what doesn’t. Today the curriculum includes lessons and teachings on health and sexuality, parental discipline, substance abuse, understanding children’s, communication, to name a few.
The program’s success reflects a deep commitment to help African-American men be the best fathers they can be.
That commitment, also evident in Obama’s personal life, can be understood as his story of growing up without seeing much of his father resonates with many. The public and well-admired relationship with his family seems to be a strong, positive model.
“The President says being a husband to Michelle and a father to Sasha and Malia are his most important jobs,” said Joshua Dubois, special assistant to the President and executive director of the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
With the president, who has spoken about responsible fatherhood on various occasions, as an example and organizations like CBM, African-American men can find support to be a better parent, have healthy family relationships and achieve greater well-being.
“We are proud of the fact that we’re changing the conversation of black men and fathers,” Hughes said. “Black men can be intellectual. We can work in corporate America. We can be great fathers and this program is a testimony to that.”
Mijajuan, who dreamed of getting married and living in a house with that white picket fence, has ambition. He completed the CBM Parent Self Improvement Project Adult Basic Education and GED Preparation program this year.
He said he sees himself in a supervisor position someday.
For his son — he doesn’t want him to hear gunshots.