State organization honors Davis for mentoring program

State organization honors Davis for mentoring program

For the second time in a little over a decade, the Rev. Harold Davis is being recognized by the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative for his ground-breaking mentoring program.

The Chicago organization named Davis as one of four winners of its 2014 Honorary Father of the Year Award, along with Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler; Elzie L. Higginbottom of Springfield, president of East Lake Management & Development Corp.; and Allen Lynch, U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.

Davis, pastor of Grace Fellowship and executive director of the TALKS Mentoring program, also conducts retreats for married couples with his wife, soprano Ollie Watts Davis. They have four grown children.

He won the Fatherhood Initiative's Ricky Byrdsong Award in 2002, named for the former Northwestern basketball coach who was killed in a hate-crime spree in 1999.

President David Hirsch launched the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative in 1996. He worked with Davis to pilot a TALKS Mentoring program in Chicago earlier this year.

The expansion comes as TALKS in Champaign County shifts from a grant-based to a donor-based organization. It is being "weaned" from about $66,000 in funding from the Mental Health Board and hopes to replace that with donations and partnerships.

We caught up with Davis before he traveled to Chicago to receive his award this evening.

Tell us about the new Chicago TALKS program.

For years I've tried to get TALKS going in Chicago, but never could find the key people you have to find. The Fatherhood Initiative has volunteered to be that organization.

I'm not concerned about getting it started. They have a bigger pool of resources than we have down here. Locally, we will be soliciting donors and partners in the next few months and trying to build our donor base as we go into the fall.

What does this award mean to you?

I believe that our society is challenged by fatherlessness to the degree that it is a national emergency. I believe that there is going to be a tsunami of consequences if we continue to ignore it.

It's growing exponentially. I believe that the crime wave we see, and the shootings we see, are directly related to fatherlessness.

What do you think people should do to about it?

Be a mentor. Donate to the program. Mentoring is not going to solve it, but it's a major component.

One hour a week, no evenings, no weekends, no financial expenditures — that's what we ask. And we can change lives. Literally.

Every father should be involved in mentoring other children. Those are the children your children have to interact with. You can't move far enough away. We're all in one little pot here called America. The more integrity the general public has, the safer everybody is.

Is fatherlessness a bigger problem for boys than for girls?

Yes. Because of testosterone. Boys go through a stage in their life when the only thing they understand is superior physical force. Somewhere around 12, 13, 14. And if there is no father around, that boy will push the limits until he finds himself encountering law enforcement.

It becomes a travesty when society does not provide men to fill this void, because it affects everybody. And that's directly related to our thesis statement:

"Every boy needs a man in his face to challenge him with wisdom regarding critical issues and decisions in his life. Every boy needs a man that will firmly, unflinchingly and lovingly correct him with wisdom when he's made a bad decision." Our prisons are full of young men who had no one to get in their face, tell them that they were wrong and then provide them with a solution.

I'm the father of three daughters. Fatherlessness affects girls in a different way. There's a void in their security when they don't have a father. And when they get older, predators see them as easy victims.

What is the most important thing a father can do for his child?

To hug that child and let that child know that he has unconditional love from his father.

I'm utterly amazed at how attached boys are to their fathers even when their fathers are chronically dysfunctional. The love between a father and a son is quite mystical.

My son told me he was on campus and there was a fight getting ready to start and he was about to get involved. He said he saw my face, and he managed to extricate himself from that environment. That is exactly what should have happened.

If you had one thing to do over again as a father, what would it be?

I would read more with my son. I started reading the dictionary with him, and we quit. One of the biggest mistakes I made. I allowed my perceived need to be busy to steal the time that we would have spent doing that.

With my daughters, I was very fortunate that an old guy who raised daughters told me, "Don't stop hugging them when they get to be 13 years old." Most fathers stop hugging their daughters when they need it most. My daughters are grown women, and I hug them now.

What got you started on this path?

I'm a hillbilly from West Virginia. I grew up in Appalachia. They were turbulent times. When Dr. King was shot, I heard more militant black people say all white people are blue-eyed devils. But there was one white man, Mr. Peeples, who was head and shoulders above everybody else. He was just kind and generous and fair.

I remember once my father came home at dusk and my mother met him at the top of the steps and said "We don't have enough to eat." They had five kids. My dad looked at me and said, "C'mon son." We walked the equivalent of Lincoln Avenue to Prospect Avenue to Mr. Peeples' house. When we got there, it was dark.

My dad said, "Mr. Peeples, I need a couple of dollars to feed my family. Can I cut the grass?" He said, "Sure." My dad was cutting the grass on the side of the hill with a sickle. In the dark.

Mr. Peeples came out and began to argue with my dad. "Take the $2, you can cut the grass later." My dad believed in a work ethic. He wouldn't take the $2 for nothing. They continued to argue, and my dad continued to cut the grass.

I could sense the love in that argument. That man changed my life.

I'm modeling what he did. He busted all stereotypes. And that's what we need. The TALKS program is racial reconciliation. It's bringing classes together.

Spreading the word

About the TALKS Mentoring Program, founded in 1995 by Harold Davis and seven one-hour-a-week volunteers at Champaign middle schools:

— It has expanded to Indiana, Florida, Tennessee and now Chicago.

— It starts at third-grade level and ideally runs through high school.

— It assigns each mentor to three students, a racially mixed group with one student who excels, one with average academic performance and one who is at-risk.

— It is based on a curriculum called "Talks My Father Never Had With Me" that covers peer pressure, relationships with siblings, anger management, work ethic, rejection, loyalty, being courteous and having a positive attitude.

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