Frank Mariano walked up the block and made a right turn toward a group of carefree teenage boys who spent the muggy summer day in Los Angeles' Koreatown skateboarding and checking their phones for text messages.
Mariano approached the youths who eyed him with puzzled looks but then the 16-year-old pushed a stroller into the playground where he would spend the afternoon with Anabell, his 1-year-old daughter.
Mariano would later leave the toddler with her 17-year-old mother and head to Children's Hospital Los Angeles to meet with two dozen other fathers between the ages of 14 and 25 to discuss their shared struggles and to learn skills to help ease their lives.
The L.A. Fathers Program at the hospital is designed to reach the often forgotten partner in teen pregnancies and dispel the stereotypes attached to the young dads: deadbeat, irresponsible or absent.
The voluntary program scours some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles to find young fathers and provide them with free parenting and relationship classes, job placement and social services. In about a year, they've had nearly 250 teen fathers go through the program. They receive free food, diapers and condoms for attending. It has developed into a haven where the young men feel safe to relax and talk about the challenges they each face, and sometimes to vent about their "baby mama," if needed.
"A lot of young dads feel alienated and experience a lot of judgment from their family, from their friends, at school," said Frank Blaney, the program's coordinator. "Here, there are other dads that are going through the same experience they are."
The program, which began last summer, aims to help the young men learn the skills to become responsible parents, active in their children's lives.
The program includes 10 weekly classes on job skills training and nonviolent parenting and relationship classes. During a recent class, Blaney asked participants to raise their hands if they grew up without a father figure; nearly all raised their hands.
He then asked what they were taught about what it means to be a man. "Have a lot of women," said one. "Men don't cry," said another. "Control your woman," someone said.
Blaney explained that those are the prevailing stereotypes, but men can be sensitive, loving, caring and still be a man.
Then one shouted: "Provide for your family!"
"That's right. There's the player; then there's the man who is at home holding it down for his family," Blaney replied. "We can pick the path we want to take as men."
The pressure to immediately be providers, however, can be detrimental in the long term, Blaney said. Often, teenage fathers immediately drop out of school to get whatever work they can because they feel that a man should be the breadwinner. They frequently get stuck in low-paying, low-skilled jobs as a result.
"It becomes a dead-end trap," Blaney said.
The program stresses finishing high school and continuing their education if possible and helps them find jobs that can accommodate both.
The program is funded by a three-year, $784,500 grant from the U.S. Office of Family Assistance. For the funding to be renewed, officials must demonstrate that they have been effective in getting participants jobs.
Mariano has been able to balance school and work. He continues to go to high school and works in construction on days off. He hopes to attend culinary school after graduation and become a chef. His girlfriend, the mother of his child, recently graduated from high school and will attend junior college in the fall. "I put school before work," Mariano said. "Without my education I won't be able to complete my goals."