LONG ISLAND CITY — When Jesus Benitez became a father at 17, he dropped out of high school and started working full time, holding down four jobs to support his family — but the long hours came at a price.
"I started realizing that I didn't have an emotional connection with my son," said Bronx resident Benitez, now 23. "I didn’t grow up with my father, and I didn't want to have that same cycle, for my son to have the same experience."
About four years after his son was born, Benitez enrolled in the CUNY Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program that launched in 2012 under the city's Young Men's Initiative, which offers young fathers educational and parenting services.
Though funding for the program was slashed last year, the city announced Tuesday that it is reinvesting $2.1 million in the Fatherhood Academy, funding that will double its reach at LaGuardia and also expand it to two other CUNY community colleges in The Bronx and Brooklyn.
The free 16-week program is for dads ages 18 to 24 and helps them get their high school equivalency diploma, offers tutoring, job readiness workshops, access to internships as well as parenting classes that cover topics like child development and communication skills.
Since graduating from the program in 2013, Benitez earned his GED and is now studying philosophy at LaGuardia, and eventually plans to pursue a doctorate. But most of all, he said it helped him build a bond with his now six-year-old son, Mason.
"They helped me improve my fatherhood skills and I was able to create this close connection with my son," he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is allocating $1.1 million from his budget to continue the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia, officials said Tuesday.
Another $1 million allocated through the city's Young Men's Initiative — which aims to address the achievement gap among young men of color — will allow the Academy to launch for the first time at Hostos Community College in the Bronx and Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.
"What we really want is to give these fathers not only the chance to connect with their kids, but the chance to make a difference in the lives of their families," LaGuardia Community College President Dr. Gail Mellow said.
According to LaGuardia, of the 136 men who graduated from the Fatherhood Academy so far, 65 percent who took the high school equivalency exam passed and got their diplomas. Another 80 graduates of the program found jobs, and 21 enrolled in college.
Among those is Brooklyn resident James Bell, 24, who joined the program in 2013 after the birth of his now 3-year-old daughter Janila. He got his high school equivalency degree with the help of the Fatherhood Academy and is now studying Human Services and Mental Health at LaGuardia.
"To this day, I think back if they weren't there, I would probably be dead or in jail, because that's the life that I came from," Bell said.
"Now me being in college and getting her [Janila] dressed and ready for school is just so amazing to me," he added.