PELHAM GARDENS — A father sat at a booth at Chuck E. Cheese’s on Saturday afternoon and quizzed his two-year-old daughter on the colors — “And what is this?” “Yellow.” “Right!” — before handing her the matching markers.
Another father, whose three daughters live in Virginia, shared a slice of cheese pizza with his young godson.
A third father, still in his teens, lobbed basketballs at an arcade hoop, while his 3-year-old daughter gazed in wonder.
The three men have more than fatherhood in common: Each was convicted of a serious crime in the past, and each is determined to lead a different life today.
“It’s the first time in my life where I want to make a change,” said Carl Robinson, 45, as he handed another marker to his daughter, Autumn. “And it’s not just for me — it’s for her.”
The three fathers, who met at the pizzeria and play center on Gun Hill Road, are clients of the Osborne Association, a Bronx-based nonprofit that assists adults who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
The voluntary weekend outing was one component of an Osborne program for fathers with criminal records that helps men navigate thorny parenting issues, such as paying child support, as they try to forge new lives for themselves.
“Our two-pronged objective is to teach the men to have better interactions with their children,” said Michael Wilcher, who heads Osborne’s Fatherhood Initiative. “Our other objective is to help them to have more responsibility and be able to earn money.”
Money woes vex many of the program participants, who are all non-custodial fathers responsible for child support.
Lamont Davis, 45, pays child support for his daughter, Taliyah, who is 5 years old. His other daughters are in their 20s.
These payments, especially when late, can ignite heated exchanges between Davis and his youngest child’s mother, from whom he is separated.
"'You don’t bring no money, no this, no that,'" Davis said he often hears from his former partner. But, he adds, "The kids don't care. They just want you to show up."
Davis, who was arrested for producing counterfeit currency, said that during one of the fatherhood sessions the group added up all the costs of raising a child from birth to age 18, including clothes, food, gifts and outings to Chuck E. Cheese's.
The men found that, all told, the estimated cost reached nearly half-a-million dollars. Those expenses can be especially burdensome for people with criminal records, who often report difficulties finding work.
While the men idle in prison or out of work, unpaid child support bills can pile up significantly.
"Now it’s accumulated so much they think, 'My God, there’s no end to this,'" said Wilcher, who added that arrears of $10,000 or more are common among his clients.
In response, several of the program's 20 two-hour sessions deal with managing child support payments, as well as other financial topics, such as landing a job and budgeting. Other sessions touch on anger management, discipline and mending ties with the other parent.
"We talk a lot about how to heal relationships," said Wilcher.
During the Chuch E. Cheese’s excursion, Wilcher video recorded the men as they inscribed Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on T-shirts and munched on pizza with their children. He encourages the men to show the videos to their children's mothers as a way to build trust and earn more time with their kids.
At the same time many of the men in the program are learning how to raise their children, they are also practicing taking care of themselves.
Carl Robinson has struggled with drug addiction. After his latest conviction for possession of narcotics, he was ordered to enroll at Osborne, which offers substance abuse counseling, job training and other services in addition to the fatherhood course.
This past November, when the fatherhood program launched, Robinson became the first participant. Though he has completed almost all of the sessions, he continues to attend the parenting classes and outings, he said, because he is still settling into the unfamiliar role of responsible father.
“This is my first time having a child — at 45 years old,” Robinson said Saturday, while Autumn bounced around his legs. “Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I wanted to break the cycle."
Next month, Robinson will begin to take classes outside of Osborne to train for a job that he now considers his calling — a drug counselor. It's a position in which he can use his past missteps as lessons for other recovering addicts, he said.
On Saturday, Robinson stenciled onto a shirt, in black and green letters, “I HAVE A DREAM AUTUMN”, and then handed it to his daughter. The toddler held the shirt with both hands and beamed.
Robinson smiled back at Autumn. "Right now, I’ve been given another opportunity for my life," he said, "and I’m going to take it."