Sheldon Smith’s father was incarcerated when he was just 7 years old. A decade later, Smith was incarcerated himself for robbery at the age of 17. “I never thought I’d live to see 23. I thought I’d be dead by 23,” says Smith. But he didn’t let these experiences guide the trajectory of his life.
When Smith was 21, he found out he was going to be a father. He quickly decided that he wanted to do it right and he wanted to help others do the same. The same year he became a father, he created The Dovetail Project, a nonprofit that empowers young African-American fathers to be great dads.
The Dovetail Project provides African-American fathers, ages 17-24, with employment skills, educational resources, and tools to be better fathers and men through a voluntary 12-week program. Fathers learn parenting skills, job interview tips, financial literacy, and how to interact with law enforcement, among other topics.
Dovetail participant Devonte Pool says that the program provides fathers with an opportunity to better themselves. “He’s like a beacon of hope, a symbol of fatherhood … The Dovetail Project has really changed me,” says Pool.
“The city of Chicago can be tough … especially if you live in a community with a lack of resources. It can be tough. [Dovetail participants] wake up every day, come to the program, and avoid the roadblocks that exist in front of them,” says Smith.
He says this voluntary program is a training for fathers, but it’s really about their babies. “The most impactful thing you can do for your child is make sure they have a better life than you had,” says Smith. “It’s all about making sure you leave your legacy.”
Since 2010, 336 fathers have completed the program. The waiting list to participate has more than 300 people on it and this year marked the largest graduation number to date. The Dovetail Project, which started in Woodlawn, is now expanding to new neighborhoods and using a larger space for its main office to account for a growing participant base. Smith’s goal is to go from 120 to 325 annual participants by 2021 and to expand to a new city by 2022.
Smith credits the program’s success to his childhood mentors who stuck by him unconditionally. “I’m making the bet that everyone made on me,” says Smith, who believes that the world can be better if we all participate even in small ways.
The Community Impact Award is presented to an individual(s) who displays leadership and commitment to his or her community by making a positive, noticeable, and significant impact on society.
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