Ninth in a 12-part series.
Tucked away in his tiny office off High Street, a Charlottesville man is looking to improve the lives of everyone in the community he’s called home his entire life, one father at a time.
A father and grandfather himself, Eddie Harris knows what it takes to be a good dad, and more than anything, he knows where to start — by looking inward.
“It’s virtually impossible for me to love my kids when I’m not loving me,” Harris said. “I’m only going to be able to give you the love that I know.”
Harris is the man behind REAL Dads, a program run through the child and community enrichment nonprofit ReadyKids. In REAL Dads, Harris works with fathers who are incarcerated or “coming from that type of lifestyle” to develop parenting goals and improve interactions with their children. The program started taking shape in 2008, when then-Mayor Dave Norris approached the head of ReadyKids, called Children, Youth & Family Services at the time, and asked about a program that could particularly serve area fathers.
After some research into what programs were already in place, higher-ups at ReadyKids tapped Harris, who had been working with the organization’s Parenting Mobile, to lead the charge.
During the course of his busy week, Harris reaches out to fathers, both in the community or incarcerated, just to talk, be it about the tenets of fatherhood or life in general. Sometimes he speaks with them one on one, and other times, like at the jail, he’ll chat with six or seven men at a time.
To be clear, Harris doesn’t consider himself a teacher, but rather a coach. Keeping with the sports theme, Harris says teamwork is an essential part of the work that he does, especially in the group meetings, where the men can “feed off of each other.”
“Everybody can let their guards down a little bit and we can support each other in ways that men are not normally supportive of each other,” Harris said. “Being vulnerable, talking about the things that are really major challenges.”
While the men go through a basic curriculum provided by the National Fatherhood Initiative, Harris said the main goal is to let them look inward to find solutions to their struggles with being a dad.
“We get these guys to inventory themselves, so they get to know themselves better,” Harris said. “For them to find another love, a deeper love, that means they’re going to have to go deeper into who they are and who they’re not.”
In a typical week, Harris will visit the jail for about an hour, or sometimes two — “I stretch it for as long as I possibly can,” he says with a laugh — to facilitate these discussions.
But more than anything, Harris said his main job is to listen because “some of these guys have never had anyone to listen to them.” He asks them about what their real goals and dreams are, and tries to have them break out of the “masks” that they often wear on the outside.
What guides Harris is the knowledge that no one he’s ever met, through the program or otherwise, has wanted to be a bad father. There’s no handbook for being a dad, but Harris wants to invite men with troubled pasts to ask for guidance.
“For men, there’s a different framework,” Harris said. “It doesn’t come easy to ask for help and say, ‘I don’t understand how to do this, will you help me?’”
Harris certainly doesn’t want to tout himself as a perfect father to his own son. While he’s always loved him, Harris said that poor lifestyle choices made him mostly absent for his son’s childhood. It’s something that informed his ability to empathize with the fathers he works with now: Lifestyle choices can shift, and relationships can be rebuilt.
“I’ve experienced a lot,” Harris said. “A lot of what these guys are going through, I’ve already experienced it, and I think that’s how it’s easier for me to relate to them on certain levels … When we talk, they can understand where I’m coming from.”
Harris said he had a close relationship with his own father but that he passed away when Harris was only 10. He still came up in what he calls a “strong neighborhood” with supportive uncles and “examples in the community of what fathers really were.” While he didn’t model that behavior from the start, Harris said that with maturation and adulthood, he began taking those examples to heart.
Harris currently works with about 16 fathers, along with a few others who are not formally in the program, but ReadyKids reports he’s reached more than 200 dads during his eight years with the program, and that 88 percent of those dads have experienced improved interactions with their children.
“Eddie pushes us as an organization and community to be better,” said Jacki Bryant, executive director of ReadyKids. “Because he cares so deeply about this community and the dads in it and their success, he’s always challenging and pushing us to think differently.”
Speaking about his method, Harris pulls out a letter from a young father who will be sentenced in court later that day, thanking him for his guidance in such a trying time. Harris will be in the courtroom when the man hears his sentence, because “a lot of times these guys don’t have anybody show up.” Harris has shown up to sentencing hearings plenty of times before, to great effect.
“The courts recognize him immediately and his presence is always significant,” said Albie LaFave, sentencing advocate at the Charlottesville Albemarle Office of the Public Defender. “Many people know him as someone who is walking a walk they would like to walk themselves.”
On top of his work with REAL Dads, Harris helps with other programs and initiatives around town. He’s a founder of the Vinegar Hill Society Magazine, a small publication in which local writers, artists and others share their stories and perspectives of the city and its culture. His work with REAL Dads extends even extends into other partner programs like City of Promise, an initiative to support underprivileged children in Charlottesville.
Sarad Davenport, executive director of City of Promise, calls Harris a “role model and mentor to young men in Charlottesville such as myself.”
“I appreciate how grounded he is,” Davenport said. “He’s very easygoing, and he’s able to help people understand critical things without being too harsh.”
When not at the jail or hard at work in his office, Harris can be found out in the community, sometimes walking around Rose Hill Drive, Washington Park, the Charleston Avenue neighborhood — the places where he grew up and that he now wants to enrich. Harris wants to see these communities and their families not only become safer, but thrive, for the sake of his grandchildren and everyone else.
“Everyone deserves that,” he said.