Jesse Madrigal, 17, can't recall the last time he saw his father--he only remembers the first time he fully realized his dad was no longer around. Madrigal was 5, and crossing the street to get some ice cream when a car hit him.
"All I know is that my father wasn't there for me," he said.
The thought still hurts. It's something Madrigal reminds himself about whenever he looks into the eyes of his own 6-month-old son.
"My father may not have been there for me, but I'm going to be there for my son," he vows.
The words are repeated over and over again by the dozen boys who participate in Con Los Padres, a novel Eastside crash course in fatherhood for teenagers.
While most teenage parenting programs focus on helping young mothers, Con Los Padres, started last fall by a family services organization, targets the boys. It not only encourages them to take responsibility for their children, but reminds them of the mounting political movement to penalize fathers who ignore child support obligations.
Funded through a $100,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Planning, the program gives up to 45 teenage fathers assistance in getting a job and enrolling in school and provides mentoring from older men. As part of the program, the fathers are paid $50 a month--money earmarked for the mother to support their child.
The program requires the fathers to register with the district attorney's Bureau of Family Support Operations, acknowledging their legal responsibility to the child and mother. Its sponsors--Bienvenidos Family Services, the district attorney's office, Rio Hondo Community College and the Montebello Unified School District--cast a wide net.
Madrigal, who had dropped out of school and had stopped going to see his son, signed up after his girlfriend heard about the program and demanded that he join.
"The program has hooked me back into school and now I feel like I'm giving something," he said. "I never experienced talking to different people before like that."
Posters on the walls of the Bienvenidos Family Center give a hint of what's in store for teenagers who cross the threshold into parenthood.
"A baby costs $474 a month to support. How much money do you have in your pockets?" asks one.
Organizers believe that nurturing young fathers can help break the cycle of emotional depravation that stunts educational growth and perpetuates the specter of children having children.
"Teen dads want to be a part of their child's life . . . but often don't have the tools to do it," said Carol Mentell, a coordinator of the district attorney's family support bureau.
Young fathers are often asked to contrast their expectations for their newborn babies with their own parents' hopes and dreams for them. Bobby Verdugo, Con Los Padres senior teenage parent counselor and mentor, probes with introspective questions.
"What does it mean when you give your word, or palabra? What is machismo?" he asks the fathers.
"What is machismo?" responded Benjamin, 18. "I guess it's when a man takes responsibility for his children, has a job, earns his way."
Often the sessions involve talking about events that are painful.
When the subject switched to the failure of someone to deliver on a promise, Raymond, 17, told of how his father had boasted that he would pierce his granddaughter's ears and buy her some earrings. "He lied," Raymond recalled.
Martin, 18, talked about how his girlfriend's parents were trying to poison his relationship with her.
"I get into fights with her dad. The baby wants to be with me--she laughs, she is happy when I'm around--but he doesn't want me there," he said.
At 16, Mike Diaz recalled going from the overwhelming joy of seeing his son, Mike Jr., born to the horror half an hour later of learning that the baby suffered from Down's syndrome.
"I was upset, disappointed, I was sad," he said. "I was confused because I didn't know what it was when they explained it. I didn't know what I was supposed to do.
"I had always thought I would have a normal baby," he said. "Like it wasn't going to be hard. He would do normal stuff. My girlfriend and I talked about [putting him up for] adoption. Finally, we just said let's give it a try. I'm glad we did."
Diaz, a junior at Montebello High School, often shows up to the group counseling sessions at the center with his son. He changes his diaper, feeds him, constantly watches over him.
"I have to be there for him," he said. "I expect to stay with my son, no matter what happens."