Charles Daniels, the founder of Fathers' Uplift in Dorchester, grew up in a single-parent family in Georgia.
His parents never married. Daniels, 32, credits his mother and other family members for raising him in a loving home, but the pain of living without his father never went away.
“When I was older, I found myself engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms because I didn’t like who I was,” Daniels said. “I felt unworthy. Come to find out, much of those unhealthy coping mechanisms was connected to me not having my father in my household.”
Daniels even attempted suicide. Eventually he found a way to turn his pain into a passion to help others.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure that … pain that I felt, another child didn’t have to feel that,” Daniels said.
After graduating from Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Florida, Daniels came to Boston and earned a graduate degree in social work from Simmons College. He became a therapist, with a special interest in children and families.
There are 44,000 fatherless households in Boston, according to a 2015 report from the National Fatherhood Initiative. That number is almost half the city's 95,000 households with children under 18.
Daniels said those staggering numbers and his own experience prompted him to create Fathers' Uplift eight years ago. It’s an outpatient mental health clinic in Dorchester that helps fathers reconnect with their children. Some of the fathers have been absent because of incarceration, drug addiction, homelessness or custody battles.
“Our goal is to help a man overcome any barrier that can prevent him from being engaged in his kid’s lives,” Daniels said.
Those barriers include falling behind on child support payments. Fathers' Uplift staffers often serve as advocates for fathers with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, or DOR.
“For instance, dads who are incarcerated, (their) arrearages continue to increase while they are in jail because DOR doesn’t know they are in jail. We help get those arrearages lessened,” Daniels said.
Daniels has a staff of seven, including his wife Samantha. They provide counseling services, parenting classes and job referrals to more than 400 men and their families a year. The annual budget of about $300,000 comes from private grants and clients' insurance.
Lemar Beck of Boston has been attending group therapy sessions for about a year. Beck smiled as he described feeling "very supported and loved" when he first came to Fathers' Uplift.
Beck credits Charles Daniels with helping him through tough times with his children.
“I like to use the word evolved. I have grown so much I have become more patient,” Beck said.
Daniels said he takes a hands-on, honest approach that works. At times, the clinic's advocacy involves conflict.
“We’re making the difficult phone calls. We’re having the difficult conversations. We are holding people accountable who are not giving fathers the best services they deserve,” he said.
Daniels is hopeful about all absent fathers, even his own.
“Despite your mistakes, you still can be the father you always wanted to be,” Daniels said. “I still believe that to be true about my father this day. Despite him being absent from my life, he still can be the father and grandfather to his grandson today.”
More fathers are being referred to the clinic or coming on their own. Less than halfway into 2018, Fathers' Uplift has served as many men as it did all last year.
Correction: This story originally misidentified Charles Daniels' wife. Her name is Samantha.