Most of the guys who come to Marvin Charles seeking help remind him of him. Many grew up without their biological fathers. Others are fresh from a stint in prison and having trouble finding, or keeping, a job that would allow them to make their child-support payments. Charles can empathize, mostly because that was once his life too.
Before getting clean, he spent his days hustling enough money to feed the drug habit that he says nearly cost him his family. Now, after more than a decade sober, Charles, with his wife Jeanett and a group of dedicated volunteers, runs D.A.D.S. (Divine Alternatives for Dads Services), a nonprofit that specializes in providing both legal and spiritual assistance to fathers.
The D.A.D.S. office in Hillman City is an inviting place. Photos of smiling men with their equally smiling children crowd the walls. These are the success stories. The goal, says Charles, is to educate and provide support for men who want to be a positive force in their children’s lives.
“Guys come here because they want to be involved,” explains Charles. “So, what we’re doing here is fighting the stereotype that men—especially men of color—duck their responsibilities.”
Until 12 years ago, Charles was that guy. He was born in 1955 to a 14-year-old who gave him up to state custody. At 16, he chose to be emancipated from the foster-care system and was raised, as he tells it, by the streets of the Central District.
That’s where he was introduced to cocaine. Charles estimates he spent nearly half his 55 years addicted to it, fathering seven children with five different women along the way. But he had to hit rock bottom before he could change his and their lives.
Months after having their second child together, Charles and Jeanett were still getting high. State Child Protective Services had already taken custody of two of Charles’ children. That’s when, says Charles, the couple decided that their infant daughter and her siblings deserved better. The couple entered sober-living programs, then began the long and difficult process of winning back their children.
Just over a year later, the Charles family was awarded the Family of the Year award from the Atlantic Street Center, a local family-support agency. A few months after that, the state granted them custody of their children. In the midst of that battle, Charles reconnected with his birth mother, who later married his biological father, giving him the family he says he’d searching for since childhood. That’s when Marvin Charles decided that he needed to give something back.
Now he sees, on average, 17 new clients each month, doing the “basement work” of helping them navigate the process of connecting or reconnecting with their children. That includes speaking with newly released convicts at transitional housing facilities about the importance of fatherhood. And people are beginning to take notice. The state Council for Children & Families is one of the organization’s biggest financial backers. And at one recent study session, King County Juvenile Detention chief Lee Davis stopped by to express his support.
Meanwhile, Charles is still working to repair his relationship with his own kids, one of whom he has no communication with. He says it’s a daily reminder of how “fatherlessness” is like another noted epidemic. “It doesn’t kill the family,” says Charles. “But like AIDS, it will open the door to the things that will. Fathers being there is the cure.” In other words: D.A.D.S. still has work to do.