Columbus Alumni and Franklin County team to mentor new dads

By Kimball Perry
The Columbus Dispatch

Kevyn Burston looked into the sparkling brown eyes of his 13-month-old son and saw himself.

The dad doesn’t want Kevyn “KJ” Burston Jr. to grow up like he did — fatherless, with little money and suffering the indignity of being in those circumstances.

“I want to teach my son something different,” Burston, 25, of the Near East Side, said. “I don’t want him to be limited to the things I was limited to.”

Because Burston never had a father in his life, he’s trying to learn from other fathers. In his case, it’s dozens of fathers.

Burston is scheduled to participate in a fatherhood program through Franklin County. It will connect him to the Columbus alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, a fraternity of mostly black men, many of whom grew up in low-income, rough neighborhoods, and without fathers. Now, they want to provide the help so few of them had.

A warehouse worker, Burston pays child support to his girlfriend. He voluntarily joined the program because he knows some of the Kappas and he wants to better himself.

“I want to be the best possible father I can be,” Burston said.

Because that isn’t always the attitude of young fathers, the Kappas decided to help.

The fraternal group had two dozen of its members certified for training that allows them to conduct their 13-week Nurturing Fathers program. It aims to help young fathers with anger management, teach them how to treat women and children with respect and kindness, and help them find mental-health, substance-abuse or other help if needed. The ultimate goals are to help the young fathers find jobs so they can pay child support, and to teach them life skills to unify and strengthen families.

“The key thing is, having a father in your life brings stability to the household,” said Philip Shotwell, president of the Kappa Alpha Psi Columbus alumni chapter.

“In these areas, that’s sorely missing. We feel like we’re stepping up to fill the void.”

The Kappas conduct the program at no charge.

“We want them to be an asset in the development of that child” even before birth, said Nathaniel Jordan II, the program’s executive director.

Several county departments support the program, hoping its success will keep young dads out of jail and help them find and keep jobs.

“The best role models for children in our community are their parents,” county Administrator Kenneth Wilson said.

The Kappas have credibility with those young fathers, who often are suspicious or resentful of government, said Susan Brown, director of the Child Support Enforcement Agency, which will refer young fathers to the program.

“One of the main reasons we interact with the fatherhood program is sometimes child-support enforcement has a bad reputation. We are a collection agency,” Brown said.

Prosecutor Ron O’Brien was happy to work with the program, noting that men behind bars can’t pay child support.

“We not only approved but encouraged (Franklin County’s Child Support Enforcement Agency) to pursue this option as it helps fathers be prepared to fulfill their financial obligations of parentage, as well as avoid issues that could result in either a collection action or a referral for prosecution, resulting in a win-win for the agency and the parent,” O’Brien said.

Young fathers can better identify with Kappas, who are older versions of themselves, Shotwell said.

“The trust that Kappa Alpha Psi has delivered in this community is invaluable,” he said. “We can open doors an agency may not.”

“We help the fathers in this program to navigate the child-support system and they (Kappas), in turn, help those fathers navigate life,” Brown said.

“If they are trying and Kappa Columbus is helping them gain employment, we’ll back off on (prosecuting) the support order or suspending their driver’s license.”

After completion of the 13-week program, young fathers will have access to free legal help — several lawyers are among the alumni volunteers — for child support, custody, visitation and other father-related issues.

The young fathers initially might be skeptical, Wilson said, but, “many of these individuals’ mindsets will change” because of the program.

Burston agrees. He lights up when he plays with his son. He smiles as he changes his clothes. He brags at every opportunity.

“I love this little boy,” Burston said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

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