From felon to role model: Sheldon Smith helps fathers find success
25-year-old Sheldon Smith was headed down the wrong path. But once he had his daughter, he became a different man.
Smith, who founded The Dovetail Project, is committed to not just his daughter, but to the success of young fathers of color.
Smith, of Avalon Park, runs a program that’s been turning boys into men, then fathers, since March 2010.
“First, we teach manhood,” says Smith, chatting at the East 47th Street offices of his fatherhood initiative program, which last week graduated 12 men between ages 17 and 24, considered at-risk or high-risk and hailing from communities including Avalon Park, Englewood and Roseland.
As a teen, Smith shared their characteristics — growing up in Woodlawn, one of five children of his mother, Lilly Armstrong, who had her first child at 14, her last at 21. Smith’s mother and father separated when he was in elementary school.
“My father was primarily in and out of my life, in and out of jail,” he says. “My mother struggled raising us.
“A strong woman. Stayed dedicated to her children. All five of us are doing very successful things today.”
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Smith’s program uses a curriculum created out of his desire to help young fathers like himself, with input from experts at the University of Chicago. It provides participants with parenting, life and job-readiness skills over the course of 12 weeks.
Smith knows the importance of making good decisions. Despite being a star athlete at Chicago Vocational High School, he was arrested for armed robbery at just 16.
But because of his stellar record, a judge agreed that it was an aberration. He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense of robbery and served five months in prison.
He went back, graduated from high school and enrolled in community college. He became a father at age 19. It was his quest for knowledge about parenting that birthed The Dovetail Project.
The project currently serves more than 150 young fathers.
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