Breaking the cycle of absentee fathers

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Chicago (CNN)For most of Sheldon Smith's childhood, his father was in and out of jail -- and in and out of his life.

In that, he's not alone.
    In the United States, nearly half of all African-American children grow up without a steady father figure, according to U.S. census data.
    But Smith is working to change that cycle in his troubled Chicago community. His nonprofit, the Dovetail Project, gives young fathers such as himself the skills to be positive role models and responsible parents.
    "Their fathers weren't in their lives," said Smith, 28. "They all went through the same things I went through."
    "Fatherhood doesn't come with a map (or) a manual," Sheldon Smith says.
    Growing up without his father, Smith fell into the wrong crowd, and at 17, he was charged with robbery and went to prison.
    "It was horrible. It scared me straight. It woke me up and saved me," Smith recalled. "I haven't been in trouble since."
    After serving time, he finished high school, went to community college and started a small construction business.
    When his daughter was born in May 2009, Smith made a commitment to stay involved in her life, and he wanted to help others do the same.
    Since 2010, more than 200 young fathers have completed his nonprofit's program.
    CNN's Laura Klairmont spoke with Smith about his work to build stronger families. Below is an edited version of their conversation:
    He's training men to be good fathers
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    CNN: What inspired you to help young fathers like yourself?
    Sheldon Smith: The summer of his 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama came to Chicago and did a speech about fatherhood. He talked about how fathers need to step it up and be more involved in their children's life.
    I appreciated what Obama said because oftentimes people don't actually speak about fatherhood. They talk about education, juvenile justice, employment. But the missing component to a lot of children's lives is fatherhood.
    The statistics tell us when fathers are in the household, children are less likely to be involved in very dangerous things, have early teen pregnancy, things of that nature. Having the President come out and make that speech in Chicago pushed me forth in my mission.
    CNN: How does your program work?
    Smith: The thing that I love most about the Dovetail Project is that it's not a mandatory program. So these young men are really volunteering to get the help and support that they need. We give them the opportunity to talk about the things that are bothering them emotionally, to vent and let those things off their chest and give them advice so they can move forward to be great dads.
    We teach fathers parenting skills. We teach life skills, such as financial literacy. We take the fathers to the bank and show them how to open up bank accounts.
    CNN Hero Sheldon Smith: Manning Up
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    When the fathers complete the program, we help them gain employment or get their GED. It's one thing to give these young men the tools for success. The next step is to give them the opportunity to take what they've learned and actually use it.
    CNN: How did your personal experiences influence your approach to the work?
    Smith: I was 7 years old when I can remember my father first being incarcerated and going away. I grew up broken. I was a bad kid in school. I didn't have that male role model there and was looking at a lot of other people who were doing negative things and thought that that was the way to go.
    My goal when I started the Dovetail Project was to break the cycle. My father grew up without having his father around. The young men in the class -- they're seeking their identity because they don't know who they get that identify from.
    Smith, center, uses the Dovetail Project to help young fathers in Chicago become positive role models.
    Some of them are coming home from the criminal justice system and looking for a second opportunity. Some just are lost and just really need some guidance and someone to give them that extra push and a hug and some love and support. They are looking for those resources in order to be better men.
    CNN: How did fatherhood change you?
    Smith: When I had my daughter Jada at the age of 21, I wanted to fulfill something that was still breaking me at that point, which was not having my father around.
    I didn't have any father figure that taught me what being a dad is. Fatherhood doesn't come with a map (or) a manual.
    I always wanted to make sure that I was there for Jada and that I made sure that she was always in a safe environment and around great people. My daughter is the greatest joy in my life.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Dovetail Project website and see how to help.
    To donate to Dovetail Project, click the CrowdRise widget below.