All along, Charles Daniels Jr. believed it was his fault.
Something he did kept his father from coming around. Something he couldn't do prompted a teacher to declare he belonged in special-education classes. Something made him different from kids on the playground.
Guilt, shame and embarrassment mounted. As a teen, he tried burying those feelings through one-night stands, booze and drugs. They didn't work, no matter how hard he tried.
At 20, he gave up. He leaned out a third-story window, ready to jump.
Then he pictured his mother's face. And his girlfriend's. Tears fell. His tense body loosened. So much that he slipped.
He caught himself in time to think, "You can't go out like this."
Charles climbed inside and vowed to find the "something" at the root of his problems. He started with the relationship with his dad because that seemed to be the foundation of his fractured life.
The quest put Charles on a path to become a healer of disconnected dads, first as a counselor then as the founder of Fathers' UpLift, Boston's first outpatient mental health center for fathers and families. Last year, the center helped more than 2,800 families. On Father's Day, former President Barack Obama saluted Charles on Twitter.
Yet for all Charles' success helping others, he's still struggling to connect with his own dad.
Charles grew up near Atlanta with his mom, two much-older half-brothers and several cousins. His dad – also named Charles Clayton Daniels – never lived with them.
In one of Charles Jr.'s earliest memories, he's sitting by his apartment window, waiting for a blue pickup truck to pull into the parking lot. He sees it and runs to the door screaming "Daddy! Daddy!"
"Every time he visited was like having candy for the first time," Charles said, laughing.
Visits slowed from monthly to every other month. It dropped to twice a year, then once. Charles was about 10 when they stopped.
His mother asked one day what he wanted for his birthday. He said he'd like to meet his dad's dad. Sorry, she said. That wasn't allowed.
Meanwhile, he saw other kids playing with their dads. The cousins who lived with them had fathers in their lives. It wasn't just that Charles had this void in his life. Questions of why he had it dominated his thoughts. The only answer to his young mind was, "You are the issue." The teacher who insisted his ability to learn was compromised added to this negative narrative.
Charles graduated high school and went to Bethune-Cookman University. He played on the football team and majored in political science. He eyed becoming a corporate lawyer.
Then came a summer program at a college in North Carolina. And an open dorm room window.
After pulling back from his suicide attempt, Charles realized his view of himself came from assumptions about his life. When he told his mother he wanted answers, starting with his father, she told him to let it be.
His girlfriend, Samantha, knew the value of a loving father. She not only encouraged Charles to find his dad, she launched a search via Facebook. She reached Latoya Daniels, a first cousin of his in Valdosta, Georgia, about three hours from where he'd grown up.
"She told us everything," he said.
Charles Sr. lived in Valdosta, where he had two sets of kids. Nobody there had known of a third branch to his family tree.
Latoya drove Charles Jr. by the house where his father lived with his wife and kids. Seeing it was "the defining moment of my search," he said, because it represented what he'd always wanted – yet only now could he understand why he couldn't have it. Charles Sr. didn't want to risk losing it by revealing the existence of Charles Jr.
When Sunday rolled around, Latoya brought Charles Jr. to church, which happened to be built by the grandfather he hadn't been allowed to meet. Charles Sr. seemed happy to see his namesake. He even introduced him to both sets of half-siblings. But not to his wife. That secret had to be kept.
Throughout their reunion, Charles Jr. saw pain in his father's eyes. He kept seeing it as he worked through his thoughts in a journal. He reached the conclusion that he had nothing to do with the worthlessness he'd always felt; it all stemmed from decisions made by Charles Sr.
"Those answers freed me," he said. "I never blamed myself again."
After college, Charles taught and worked at a homeless shelter. He applied to more than a dozen law schools without getting accepted.
His time in classrooms and at the shelter piqued an interest in social work. He applied to a single graduate school, Simmons University in Boston. He got in and earned a prestigious Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.
The program required him to find a way to meet unmet health needs. He wound up leading a weekly support group in a home for men trying to stay sober.
"That's when I was introduced to dads who were not in their kids' lives," he said. "I found that they also had a whole host of issues – emotional, substance use, child support, issues with their kids' mom. These were things I'd never thought about."
He created Fathers' UpLift while working toward his master's degree. He wanted to keep going after graduating, but a full-time job for Boston's Men's Health and Recovery program got in the way.
Then Samantha, who now was his wife, intervened again.
"Don't stop Fathers' UpLift," she said. "This is what God called you to do."
A grant from the Lanny Zakim Fund enabled Charles to quit his job and open a 600-foot office in 2014.
Fathers' UpLift has grown ever since.
Now an outpatient clinic for fathers and families, Charles is working toward expanding the services offered. He also aims to build a shelter. His vision carries a $3.2 million price tag.
I'm happy to say that Fathers' UpLift recently received $150,000 from the new Social Impact Fund created by my organization, the American Heart Association. This fund enables us to invest in local entrepreneurs, small businesses and organizations that are breaking down the social and economic barriers to healthy lives. In early August, Charles will be among the speakers at an AHA-hosted event that's part of the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival.
Last year, Charles applied for the Obama Foundation's inaugural class of fellows. He made enough of an impression that he was encouraged to apply again this year. He got in. In June, a surprise visit to his clinic by the foundation's executive director was followed by the surprise shout-out from Obama on Twitter.
"Today, we're celebrating fathers like these who provide a powerful example—not only for their kids, but for the rest of us, too," the former president tweeted.
The final chapter of this story involves Charles Jr. becoming a father.
What should be a fairytale ending is actually a messy one.
When Samantha became pregnant, Charles seesawed between joy and fear. He gained weight, lost energy and bickered with his wife.
"We almost broke up," he said. "It was a combination of me bracing for perceived trauma, wrestling with the notion of what kind of father I didn't want to be and facing the question of whether I could be the father I needed to be."
During the pregnancy, Charles' mother gave him his baby book. He'd never seen it.
He found a picture of him in his dad's arms. Seeing the face of Charles Sr. "completely demolished" any lingering blame Charles Jr. held.
Samantha delivered a boy. They named him Clayton Charles, flipping the order of the first and middle names shared by Charles and his dad.
Clayton was around 1 when Charles Jr. brought the boy to Valdosta. No matter how things turned out, he wanted to always be able to tell his son, "You met your grandfather."
The meeting was brief but nice. Charles Sr. held Clayton, a bridging of generations that meant everything to the son/father in between.
"Dad, I want you to know that I forgive you," Charles Jr. said. "You deserve to be in your grandson's life."
Soon after, Charles Sr. called.
"You forgive me for what?!" he barked. "Don't you ever talk to me that way. I bought you school clothes!"
"I apologize if you feel disrespected," Charles Jr. said in a conversation recounted on his blog. "But I want you to know that me forgiving you was for me."
As a counselor, Charles. Jr. recognized that Charles Sr. "heard me blaming him." Guilt, shame and embarrassment bubbled up and Charles Sr. didn't know how to deal with those emotions.
He still doesn't. Clayton is 4 and hasn't seen his grandfather again.
At Fathers' UpLift, counselors give dads the tools to work through those feelings and repair relationships. Whenever Charles Sr. is ready, a spot is waiting for him.
"If my father came in," Charles Jr. said, "I would tell him, `You are not your mistakes. Whatever is keeping us apart, it doesn't have to define your relationship with me. You're a special person. I love you.'
"That," he added, "is what we want all dads to hear."
A version of this column also appeared on Thrive Global.
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