When I was asked to write a guest blog in honor of Father’s Day for the CHOP PolicyLab, my first thought was that a father’s voice on this topic is more relevant than my own. This led me to think about the wonderful fathers that I know both personally and professionally. I recently met Mr. Brent Johnstone, an amazing father, a co-founder of FathersLead365, and an Early Learning Specialist for the Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP). I would like to share what I learned about Brent when I interviewed him for this blog. I am sure you will be as deeply moved as I was.
I met Brent a few months ago at the Read by 4th Mayor’s Summit, where he and co-founder of FathersLead365, Afieff Staples, were the MCs. It was right after the Philadelphia Eagle’s historic Super Bowl win, so the energy in the room was upbeat and infectious. Brent and Akieff lifted our spirits even higher, and challenged us all to become not only Super Bowl Champions, but literacy champions as well. During the event, Brent shared his passion for literacy and fatherhood that led to the creation of FathersLead365, a non-profit organization dedicated to impacting, inspiring, and uplifting fathers from all walks of life. Brent went on to describe all the important work that FathersLead365 is doing: reading to preschoolers in day care, co-authoring books, and even hosting their very first fathers’ education and literacy conference. Brent also shared his personal, life-long struggles with reading, and revealed that he was diagnosed with dyslexia while in school. After experiencing Brent and Akieff’s passion for fathers and literacy, I knew I had to meet them, introduce them to the Parent-Child Home Program, and see how we could work together.
I am the Pennsylvania State Director of the Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP), a research-proven home visiting model that prepares underserved families with children 16 months – 4 years old for school success by strengthening the parent-child relationship. Since I started, one of my visions for the Philadelphia PCHP has been to have a fathers’ only cohort with male home visitors working specifically with fathers and their children. It just so happened that the Parent-Child Home Program site in North Philadelphia was still looking to fill an Early Learning Specialist (our home visitors) position, and during my meeting with Brent and Akieff, Brent expressed some interest about the position. A couple of months later Brent was hired, trained in the Parent-Child Home Program model and began conducting home visits with six families, including two fathers, in North Philadelphia.
When I interviewed Brent for this blog, I was profoundly inspired by the experiences he shared as both an Early Learning Specialist, and as a father. Brent never knew anything like PCHP existed, but always thought that a program like ours was necessary. Some of the families that Brent works with live in Philadelphia Housing Authority developments like the North Philadelphia Richard Allen Homes. Just to give you a sense of North Philadelphia, a 2016 article published by The Inquirer entitled In Philly Your Zip Code Sets Your Life Expectancy, says It’s the poorest community in America’s poorest big city. And life expectancy there isn’t as high as it is in Syria and Iraq. But Brent loves working in communities where people may have misperceptions about the residents. He says that his experience has been so different from the stereotypical view that many people hold about “low income” families and communities. Brent sees these parents trying so hard to educate their children, he says “these dads are amazing… stories don’t get told enough about connected dads.”
On a Friday night, Brent was conducting a home visit in North Philadelphia, and he shared how special it was to be sitting on the floor with a father, mother, and child, playing, talking and encouraging the child to explore the blocks that he brought with him as part of the Program’s curricular material. This is how Brent described it, “Spending a Friday night with two young parents in their 20s, all three of us are focusing on this one child learning about all the things she could do with her blocks, and all cheering and giving her high fives. I stayed longer than [the typical] 30 minute [visit] because I was caught up in the moment – and that happens a lot. It is hard to make stereotypes after an experience like this.” A few weeks later, the same dad from this family was participating in a home visit that the mom was unable to attend. Brent says “this child is challenging. She is one years old, moves all around – so it was just me and the dad and I thought she is going to be all over the place.” But simply by just being there, this father’s presence created a completely different family dynamic. “She didn’t move, and it wasn’t like he was yelling at her, he was sitting on the couch participating, he watched me, participated… it created a whole different dynamic. No slight to the mother, but he needs to stay consistent in her life and the home visits.”
As the only male PCHP early learning specialist at the North Philadelphia site, Brent champions the young mothers he works with by encouraging and praising the work they are doing with their children. Brent also thinks highly of his fellow Early Learning Specialists and says, “they didn’t try to be teachers- but they ARE teachers, they can teach. Far too often we think teachers are just teachers and forget everyone can be an educator….To see young ladies, people who are not certified teachers have a role as an educator is one of the biggest components of this Program.”
When asked to describe fatherhood, Brent says, “The most important thing to a family and community is a stable father and stable men. We provide balance and security which is so important. I truly think when men embrace fatherhood, it is the best thing in the world. You will do things you never thought you would do. Make sacrifices you never thought you could make because you have a mouth to feed. Fatherhood is so much bigger than you. It can affect things you never knew. Fatherhood, I can best explain through my dad. At my dad’s funeral my sister told a story about a time they caught the bus home from school in the 9th grade and someone got shot. They came home and told my dad. My dad didn’t say much. The next day, my dad was waiting outside of the high school for them. Every day from 9th through 12th grade, he was there waiting for them. He protected his daughters. He never talked about it, just showed up and did it. A father to me is a constant guide throughout life on how to make decisions based on what they taught you and what you saw.”
I hope after reading this you come away with a bigger, bolder view of the value of fathers. Fathers are a protective factor that are often not thought of in that way for many reasons. Research shows that a child’s well-being in so many areas is positively impacted by the presence of a father in their lives. Brent Johnstone is one shining example of a very involved father who is working to not only strengthen his family, but also other families through FathersLead365 and as an Early Learning Specialist with the Parent–Child Home Program. May we all be inspired by his example and strive to be inclusive of fathers professionally and personally and recognize the often-unsung gifts that they bring to families and communities.
In the words of Nick Foles, Quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles (and Super Bowl champion!), “But now to be a father, that changes everything.”
To read the full version of Malkia’s blog post on CHOP PolicyLab, please click here.
Malkia Singleton Ofori-Agyekum Bio
Malkia Singleton Ofori-Agyekum holds a Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Services from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also holds a Certificate in Early Childhood Mental Health from Widener University, and a Certificate from the Non-Profit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI) from Bryn Mawr College. Ms. Ofori-Agyekum has dedicated her time and talent to serving underserved communities in both Baltimore, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has fifteen years of experience as an administrator and advocate, including as Vice President of Social Services at the People’s Emergency Center, Jumpstart Baltimore Program Coordinator, Project Act Training Consultant for Abilities Network and Education Coordinator for Head Start at Morgan State University. She is the co-chair of the Children’s Workgroup-Early Childhood Committee, member of the Intergen Steering Committee, and Content Expert for families experiencing homelessness for the Strong Families Commission, Inc. Currently, Ms.Ofori-Agyekum is the Pennsylvania Program Director for the Parent-Child Home Program, a nationally recognized research-based early literacy, school readiness, parenting program that prepares young children for school success.