East Durham Children’s Initiative assists father figures with challenges

Wilson Garner, 52, didn’t expect to be raising his 11-year-old grandson, José, on his own. When he became the sole caretaker of José eight years ago, he was already retired due to health problems.

Wilson Garner, 52, plays with José’s 3-year-old dog Princess. “It’s just us – and Princess,” Garner said of their home. José was unavailable to be pictured. (Staff photo by Katie Reeder)

Wilson Garner, 52, plays with José’s 3-year-old dog Princess. “It’s just us – and Princess,” Garner said of their home. (Staff photo by Katie Reeder)

“It took everything,” Garner said. “I wouldn’t have been able to work anyway, having José. He was going through it.”

Such a situation is rare, however. Clifton Daye, community ambassador at East Durham Children’s Initiative, said many of the men he has worked with have viewed their involvement with their children as directly affected by their employment situation.

Daye said fathers in Northeast Central Durham have their challenges. The area – and the people – have been labeled based on the negative activities that have gone on there, Daye said. Further, he believes people might feel oppressed due to limited educational and employment opportunities.

According to City-Data, 32.5 percent of homes in Northeast Central Durham are single-mother households as compared to 15.6 percent of homes in all of Durham.

“I just think it has to do with overwhelming problems, limited foresight,” Daye said.

He said some mothers may feel overwhelmed trying to take care of everyone, and some fathers respond to this pressure by walking away.

“The cycle is repeated over and over,” he said.

But this isn’t always the case.

Garner’s Story 

Daye facilitated a men’s group that provided support for fathers and emphasized the importance of a male figure in children’s lives. Garner was a part of this group, but Daye said Garner was very involved in José’s life before the program.

“Wilson was already hands-on,” he said, “I can’t take any credit.”

Garner said he regrets not being more involved in his own son’s life, and he is doing things differently with his grandson.

“God first. Then it’s José; then it’s me,” Garner said.

He has been to one cookout in the past eight years. He doesn’t go out of town without his grandson, and he usually checks on José twice every night. He has even allowed a toy fox terrier, Princess, into the house for José.

“She’s a little devil,” he said as he shook his head and smiled.

Garner said his life is based around José.

“It’s just mandatory that he succeeds at all costs, and I’ll settle for nothing less than that. I refuse to do it,” Garner said. “So with that, I try to be involved in anything that I can be involved in that’s going to make me a better parent.”

Armstrong’s Story 

Jonathon Armstrong, another father who participated in the EDCI men’s group, has also chosen to break the cycle of absent fathers.

Armstrong has been married for almost one year and has two boys – a four-year-old, who is his wife’s biological child, and a 15-month-old he and his wife had together.

Armstrong spent nine months in prison and was released in 2012. He said he became involved with EDCI a little over a year ago so he could be more involved in his children’s lives.

Although Armstrong said his own father was in and out of prison, he said his father was still a positive role model who tried to be involved with his children. He said that set an example for him but also motivated him to do more for his own children.

“My dad was in and out of my life, and I didn’t want to be like that with my kids. I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “Why would I put them through something that I went through when I thought — and was always upset at him when he left?”

Through the men’s group, Daye connected Armstrong to a certification program at Durham Technical Community College. Daye said the certification program is good for people who want to work but may have trouble finding employment because of their backgrounds.

Two weeks after graduating, Armstrong got a job in asbestos removal. His job requires a lot of time away from home, however, and he says this is the hardest part about being a father. Fortunately, his wife is there when he’s not.

“When we’re stretched thin and she has to do something, I can be there for them,” he said. “When I have to do something, then she can be there with them.”

And what makes it worth it all to him?

“Being involved in their lives, and watching them grow up, and knowing where they started and where they’re at now and what they’ve been through,” he said. “Knowing that I’m there to help, and they won’t be another average kid in America with a single-mama family.”


Although Daye said the men’s group no longer meets, EDCI still offers support to parents of children at YE Smith Elementary through its Parent Advocate Program. Advocates help parents take advantage of resources and get involved in their children’s education. To learn more about services offered, call 919-699-6873.

For parents of younger children, Welcome Baby offers parenting classes. To register, call 919-560-7392.

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