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Indianapolis nonprofit celebrates 30 years of empowering men and their families  

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President and CEO Larry Smith poses in front of the Fathers and Families center located at 2835 N. Illinois St. (Photo/Mesgana Waiss)  

A buff-brick building sits on a busy one-way street near Downtown Indianapolis. It is swallowed by a host of maple trees, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and Ivy Tech Community College. 

Residents might miss the unassuming “Fathers and Families” sign outside, but inside, Larry Smith and his small army are doing the work many don’t want to miss. They are empowering men and families to put an end to the absent fatherhood crisis.  

Smith is president and CEO of Fathers and Families, a small nonprofit that has served more than 20,000 men during the past 30 years. The organization’s legacy now sits on his shoulders, and he said it hasn’t been an easy task.  

According to a U.S. Census Bureau 2021 report, 64% of Black children live in a single-parent home. But Smith said statistics alone do not tell a full story. The men who walk through his doors have a desire for fatherhood. He said systemic circumstances deserve more of the blame.  

The George Floyd protests in 2020 advanced federal efforts, such as the U.S. Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys (CSSBMB), to research these issues more in-depth. Cosponsored by Rep. Frederica Wilson and Sen. Marco Rubio, the bipartisan 19-member taskforce was established to study and identify Black males’ lived experience and disparities.

CSSBMB’s Executive Director Mark Spencer’s role requires him to be a liaison. The commission features prominent political figures such as Rev. Al Sharpton and notes educational inequity to be a point of emphasis for this suffering demographic.  

“We are in this moment, particularly after the pandemic, where educational attainment is under serious pressure and we have to intervene to improve, particularly for Black boys,” he said.  

But the conversation that surrounds Black men and boys for Spencer requires historical context. He said it starts with slavery and race massacres during Jim Crow, and he embraces the “controversial” conversations.  

“It has always been a challenge fighting against a social and legal structure that has always undermined the dignity of Black boys who become fathers,” Spencer said. 

The former deputy chief prosecutor acknowledged the 1994 Crime Bill’s contribution to the mass incarceration of Black and brown males. Spencer said it ultimately augmented the current fatherhood crisis that Father and Families seeks to mitigate today.  

“We highlight brave and conscientious people and organizations like Fathers and Families who are not waiting for government, but who are shuffled to the ground with their own initiatives and working to improve the lives of all Black people,” Spencer said. “We are saying to the White House, Congress and other decision makers, look at what’s happening in Indianapolis. [Fathers and Families] should be a program that if you invest in it can have great returns.” 

A father with no father  

The Fathers and Families center’s basement has an array of ties, shirts, pants, and shoes. The organization offers free wardrobe assistance to help men in need of men of professional clothing for the Strong Fathers graduation ceremony, job interviews and other events alike. (Photo/Mesgana Waiss) 

For Smith, this line of work is personal. He grew up without his father, after his parents divorced when he was four. His mother and grandparents raised him, and although his grandfather served as a male role model, the absence of his father had a profound impact on his life. 

“My goal was to be the opposite of my father,” Smith said. “I look to him as a teacher, he taught me how not to be a father.”  

When Smith became a father at 16, he was determined to be present. And now at 53 it rings true for the father of three and grandfather of two. His two youngest children, a son who is a high school junior and class president, and a daughter who attends Howard University, are some of his proudest achievements.  

“I’ve learned a great deal on how to become a better father since I’ve been here,” he said. “Shortly before taking my daughter to college, she was my intern. She has a better appreciation for what I do now.” 

Smith was able to be involved with his family and graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts with a degree in Afro-American studies and earned an MBA from Stanford University. His other achievements include Indy’s Best and Brightest winner, an Indiana University Tobias fellow and being listed in the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Forty Under 40. Prior to his role at Fathers and Families, he served as director of development for the Hamilton County Community Foundation.  

“I take community work as a badge of honor,” he said. “I sit on five community improvement boards and still find time to write my own column for the Indianapolis Recorder.” 

As president and CEO of Fathers and Families, Smith has three main goals for the organization:  

  1. Expand the organization’s name recognition  
  2. Build more partnerships for their clientele  
  3. And raise money.  

What does it mean to be a father in the 21st Century? 

Father and Families offers two main programs. Strong Fathers is a free, three-week program offered year-round. From 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, participants attend sex education, financial literacy, conflict resolution and professional development classes.  

“Most of the men like me grew up without a father.” Smith said. “We focus on the four P’s. The person, partner, protector and provider.”   

Participants also have an opportunity to earn money weekly based strictly on their attendance and punctuality. Smith said this builds a culture that prepares the men for the workforce.  

The other program works directly with men in correctional facilities who plan to be released within 30-90 days. Men at the jail voluntarily attend the Fathers and Families courses that mimic the Strong Fathers’ program sessions.  

Smith said these classes prepare them to successfully integrate back into society. Fathers and Families also offers the men free STD testing and formal business attire.  

Martin’s testimony 

At the end of each Strong Fathers program, the organization holds a graduation ceremony to honor the hard work of the men. In 2001, Jeffery Martin sat in one of those chairs awaiting his name to be called.  

The year prior, the Broad Ripple High School alumnus welcomed a daughter into the world. Life was difficult, and he struggled to pay child support. He saw a Fathers and Families commercial and knew someone who benefitted from the program. When he learned there was a financial incentive, he knew he had to give it a try.  

Jeff Martin, an independent filmmaker and former Fathers and Families client, proudly holds the Heart of the Father award at the Faces of Fathers Luncheon. He was recognized for his community service and modeling fatherhood with the organization’s support. (Photo provided/Jeff Martin 

“Seeing a lot of the positive male figures who genuinely were trying to help, that always stuck with me,” Martin said. “That absolutely was what I needed at the time. I was fortunate to grow up with male role models but being an adult it’s easy for people to give up on you. They look at you as having missed your chance. But this organization still focused on me.”  

Martin said nothing changed substantially in his life immediately after the Strong Fathers program. He was homeless and in a desperate search for a job. He went back to Fathers and Families to speak with former president and CEO Wallace McLaughlin.  

He planned to attend an audio engineering school in Chillicothe, Ohio. McLaughlin insisted on helping Martin find a place to live first.  

“I was like I can be homeless for a little bit longer if I can go to this school,” Martin said. “I knew that was my way.”  

Fathers and Families agreed and provided Martin with more than half of the money to attend the 10-week certification course. He said that opportunity was the movement toward a sustainable life.  

“The assistance didn’t stop at graduation,” he said. “I still had resources and tons of people behind me which made it easier for me to get out of homelessness.” 

Martin said the organization taught him patience, which still accompanies him during difficult moments. He said being in the Fathers and Families’ setting he realized the importance of other people’s perspectives. This led him to put aside his differences with his oldest child’s mother to adhere to his responsibility as a father.  

“I just remember having a talk with her and we put it all on the table,” Martin said. “It was then we built a bridge that we could get across.”  

It is more than 22 years later, and Martin is an independent filmmaker. And he still manages to provide for his four children who range in age from 3-23.  

“I would recommend Fathers and Families to anyone, fathers and couples,” he said. “It’s just a huge resource to the community.” 

Fathers, families and the future  

This year Fathers and Families developed a close partnership with Eastern Star Church. The center will begin construction training at the church’s main location on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis. 

“This is a very important opportunity for our men to gain new skills,” Smith said. 

Smith celebrates his first full year in this role replacing McLaughlin’s rather intimidating 29-year term. And he is not interested in following in his predecessor’s footsteps. He has a different idea for his next 28 years.  

“My grand aspiration would be to eliminate the need for Fathers and Families to exist,” he said. 

Why might you ask? It is not harmful optimism. He adds there will come a time when Fathers and Families will fulfill its need in the community.  

“The ultimate goal of almost any nonprofit organization is to put itself out of business,” Smith said.  

He said he hopes this happens soon so organizations like his can embark on challenging other issues related to the human condition. To learn more about Fathers and Families, visit fathersandfamiliescenter.org.  

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