When Angel Juarez became a father at 21, he Googled "how to be a good dad."
He had no idea. Juarez, who shares 4-month-old daughter, Dejà, with his wife, Dakgma Ojeda, grew up with a largely absent father. In response, Juarez said he began destroying property and hanging out with local gang members.
"I was angry," Juarez told TODAY Parents.
By age 14, Juarez was stealing and selling drugs. He didn't think he'd live to see 18. Juarez said he lost many close friends to gun violence.
After a wakeup call that involved a stint in a juvenile detention center, Juarez broke free from crime and graduated with an associate’s degree in psychology from Morton College in Illinois. But his life is still filled with challenges. Juarez and his family are living in a homeless shelter now. Previously, they were camping in a storage unit.
“Dejà was born into this,” Juarez said. But he and Ojeda, 21, hope to have their own place soon. Juarez is getting a commercial driver’s license so he can work as a long-distance trucker.
“I finally have a plan to move forward,” Juarez shared.
And he said he owes his brighter future, in part, to the Dovetail Project in Chicago.
Three months ago, Juarez’s internet searches led him to the non-profit organization, which provides Black and Latino men between the ages of 17 and 24 with the tools they need to be positive role models for their children.
Participants learn parenting, life and job skills as well as felony street law and family law. The program was founded by Sheldon Smith, a Chicagoan who is determined to break the cycle of absentee fathers.
“When the dads complete the 12-week course, they get a job or a GED and a $500 stipend,” Smith told TODAY.
Juarez said The Dovetail Project is helping him to unlearn machismo, and learn healthier habits.
“I want Dejà to grow up confident and to have integrity. I want her to do the right thing even when no one is watching.”
“It’s OK to feel emotions and to express them,” Juarez shared. “I’m finally able to say, ‘I feel anxious,’ or ‘I feel overwhelmed.’ You can feel things other than happiness or anger.”
Juarez, who graduated from The Dovetail Project on June 8, is determined to lead by example.
“Myself and the other dads (in the program), we’re like the farmers of the next crops — or the next generation,” he said. “I want Dejà to grow up confident and to have integrity. I want her to do the right thing even when no one is watching.”
Fellow Dovetail Project alum Brandon Drayton, 24, was 7 when his dad went to prison for life. Drayton said his mother, a teen mom, would disappear and leave him and siblings alone overnight.
“Nobody was really looking after us, really,” he told TODAY. “We could do whatever.”
Now, Drayton, the father of 8-month-old daughter Brayla and 23-month-old son Braylon, is figuring out how to navigate the ups and downs of parenthood while processing grief.
“I’m learning how to be a good father. I never had a real example of what a father is supposed to be or do.”
Braylon’s mother, Alesha Cockrell, died in September 2020 from respiratory issues. Drayton was in the room when she was taken off life support in the intensive care unit, and said the memories still haunt him.
To numb the pain, Drayton said he started smoking an “excessive amount” of marijuana. But now he said he’s back on track — and landed a new job, thanks to the Dovetail Project.
“I’m learning patience. The crying is hard, but I’m now able to tune it out to the best of my ability,” said. “I’m learning how to be a good father. I never had a real example of what a father is supposed to be or do.”
Though Drayton splits custody of Braylon with the toddler's grandmother, he asked if he could take the little boy for a two-month stint to practice his new skills. He's feeling more confident and capable.
That’s exactly why Smith created the The Dovetail Project in 2009.
“Ninety percent of the young men we serve have not grown up with their fathers in their lives. And so they’re really starting behind the eight ball and saying, ‘How do I travel this journey?’” Smith said. “We teach them and we support them. Our curriculum — it’s changing lives.”