Chicago man starts The Dovetail Project which teaches young men how to be good fathers

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Chicago man starts The Dovetail Project which teaches young men how to be good fathers.
Chicago man starts The Dovetail Project which teaches young men how to be good fathers. Courtesy of The Dovetail Project.

One man’s quest to break the generational cycle of poverty has birthed an organization dedicated to supporting and educating young fathers.

The Dovetail Project is now the nation’s leading fatherhood initiative. The organization teaches parenting skills to young fathers aged 17 to 24. It’s founder, Sheldon Smith, was raised in poverty by a single mother.

Sheldon Smith and his daughter Jada.
Sheldon Smith and his daughter Jada. Courtesy of The Dovetail Project.

Smith’s parents had him when they were both 18 years old. “With them both being teen parents, my father struggled, and he was in and out of my life.” Smith said.

Smith had started down a troubled path, and by the age of 21, had already spent time in jail for armed robbery. In 2009, his life shifted dramatically when he held his newborn daughter, Jada, in his arms for the first time.

“I remember it like yesterday,” he says. “I sat in the hospital room and held her, and just talked to her. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Man, I might not see her turn 3. I might not see her turn 4. I might not be around when she’s 10.'”

It was that moment that started Smith on a more stable path with his life and made him want to choose to turn his attention to helping other young fathers do the same.

Courtesy of The Dovetail Project.

The Dovetail Project has seen nearly 600 young fathers graduate from the program since it began.

“We are able to teach the young men three important skills: parenting skills, life skills and felony street law,” Smith explains. “When the fathers complete the program, they receive a job, a GED or a trade, along with a $500 stipend and one year of case management that’s wrapped around it.”

One recent Dovetail graduate, Kawan Nicholson, talked about his personal experience with the program.

“When I walked in, I felt like I didn’t know much about being a father, other than you have to take care of them, you have to provide. But there was so many other things to being a father than just taking care and providing. You also have to be there”.

Nicholson, now 21, first became a father at the age of 18. Nicholson’s mother recommended the Dovetail Project to her son. “When I found out about it, I found out Sheldon’s story as well,” says Nicholson. “I was like, ‘Man. So if he can do it, I can do it. Anybody can do it.'”

The Dovetail Project's 2021 graduating class.
The Dovetail Project’s 2021 graduating class. Courtesy of The Dovetail Project.

Nicholson graduated from the program in December with his two kids cheering him on. The excitement from the two youngsters, Karlee age 2, and Kylann age 6 months, could be heard all around.

“We were at graduation and you hear his [oldest child] yelling in the background, ‘Daddy, daddy!'” says Smith.

“I loved how my daughter Karlee was yelling for me out there,” says Nicholson. “I knew that she was my No. 1 fan out there rooting for me.”

Smith’s goal with the Dovetail Project extends far beyond the fathers they help. Children with involved fathers are 80% less likely to spend time in prison and 75% less likely to become young parents according to Dovetail’s website.

By educating and supporting these young men, their children will receive healthier, happier childhoods. And those children will eventually grow up to be better parents to their own children one day.

“The work that we are doing is generational building, it’s legacy work,” he says. “It’s something that’ll last forever.”

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