One in four families in the United States does not have a father present in the home — but one group is dedicated to making a difference.
Keith A. Lewis Jr. and Jermaine Clark launched I'm A Father F1rst, a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta, in 2017. Lewis said his own divorce was an important influence: After going from "being a young man trying to raise kids" to a divorced father who had to "drive five hours to and from to have a connection" with his kids, he wanted to emphasize that the importance of being an active parent.
"Not being there to wake my children up every morning was the most painful thing I (could) go through," Lewis told TODAY's Craig Melvin. "It made me repeat the affirmation 'I am a father first.'"
The pair started out by offering free haircuts to kids in their neighborhood. Later, they started mentoring local boys, many of whom came from single-parent homes. One of those boys, Demetrius Marshall, said he was a "typical knucklehead" before engaging in the program.
"I was ... always getting in trouble until they came to school and told us this wasn't it, that wasn't the route to go," Marshall said. Now an alumni of the program, he enlisted in the United States Army after high school. "A specific lesson that I learned was 'Don't take anything that you have for granted, because there's always someone less fortunate.'"
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Recently, the program has expanded from haircuts and mentorship to teaching business skills after a group of young men who were selling water and cleaning cars raised red flags. Lewis, who previously spent time in jail for selling drugs, wanted to step in.
"We just saw how they were too aggressive," Lewis explained. "We wanted to come in."
Lewis coined a name for the group, dubbing them "The Corner Boys" and giving them branded T-shirts. I'm A Father F1rst provides water bottles and other necessities to the boys.
"The same way that 'Corner Boy' meant dope seller back in the day, it now means a kid that works with Keith and Jermaine, out here selling some water," Lewis said.
Lewis said he also wants kids in the program to know that it doesn't matter how you start — it's how you finish something that matters.
"I tell kids, 'The same young man that can be put out of a school 25 years ago, the same young man that could get shot twice' — which, I got shot twice in these city streets — 'can go back and get some help,'" he said.
When the pandemic hit, the group pivoted again, this time to making sure that the youths they worked with were fed through its "Meals of Love" program, which feeds 400 households five days a week through partnerships with city schools and corporate sponsors.
"The mantra is 'We are the village,'" Lewis said. "I'm A Father F1rst is going to stay there, but it's going to trail off into so many different things."