The Heroics Of Being A Father

Robert Carmona
CBS/The Early Show
What makes a hero? We'd probably all agree that people who risk their own lives to save another's life is a hero. But as Early Show correspondent, Debbye Turner discovered, sometimes a hero has to rescue himself, before he's able to help others.

In a classroom in east Harlem something pretty remarkable is going on: A group of men, all of them products of some of New York's toughest neighborhoods, sharing their feelings with one another.

Reynaldo Perez says, "She only lives 50 blocks away and I'm scared to pick up the phone and call her.

A man named Jeff says, "I need that relationship with my children so that no matter what they go through, I want them to be able to talk to me about it."

It's an 8-week workshop on fatherhood called "Pops." The men meet once a week, some voluntarily, some because a judge sent them.

To the men, Pops founder Rob Carmona, 53, notes, "This fatherhood thing, ain't never going to be perfect. We're never going to be perfect."

Carmona knows what he's talking about. And has the attention of the other men because of his own "street cred."

On the street, he says he used to "hang out; score drugs."

Carmona grew up hard in the projects in New York City. One of four children, Carmona was raised mostly by his mother. His father was a merchant marine, rarely home, and never available.

Carmona says, "The only thing my father taught me and my older brother to do was to fight because he was a boxer, but that was the extent of it."

Desperate for a male role model, Carmona did what many boys in his situation do: he turned to the streets.

He says, "Looking back on it, I think that I always wanted to find out what it was to be a man, right? And I went to the street for that, and what I identified as a man were guys that were hustlers, that had nice cars, that had nice clothes."

The projects at 112th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem were his stomping grounds.

Carmona began using heroin and got hooked. To feed his habit he sold drugs and committed other crimes, and in his early 20s he became a father.

He says. "My daughter's mother worked, so I was my oldest daughter's caretaker for the first 8 months. So I would go do my crime, go get high and then, I'd be running around the neighborhood with a stroller taking care of my older daughter."

The turning point for Carmona came in an unusual way...

"The best thing that happened to me, believe it or not, is I got busted for an armed robbery," he says.

Carmona took an offer to go into rehab instead of prison. It was there that he got a message that would change his - and others' - lives forever.

He says, "When I went away, my oldest daughter who is 29 now was 8 months old, and they started getting on me about what kind of life is this girl going to have, and that kind of caught my attention. So I guess I realized that if I wanted to be a good father, certain things had to follow. I couldn't be drinking and drugging and jailing, so I kind of hunkered down after that."

That "hunkering" down meant earning a degree; dedicating himself as a husband and father; and helping other men understand the importance of fatherhood."

Carmona notes, "I can tell you in almost every group I've done when I ask, how many of the fathers in that group were raised with both parents, probably a tenth of the hands go up. This is a cycle that is in some respects chewing the fabric of our communities."

It's a message that seems to be getting through to the men in the pops group.

Pops participant Reynaldo Perez says, "They'll learn how to be a better father, and from that, the community's automatically going to be better."

Perez has been an absentee father to his teenage daughter. He says with Carmona's help, that's going to change.

"He's just a wonderful man," Perez says about Carmona. "I can't say nothing else, but he's a wonderful man."

And in his eyes, he says Carmona is his hero.

Perez notes, "Just before the interview, he was out there hugging me and telling me not to give up. I said that I would try not to. He said, 'Don't try.' So I made him a promise that this week, I am going to call my daughter (starts to cry). I made him a promise. I am a man of my word."

And those words have to be music to Rob Carmona's ears.

Carmona says, "People in our communities need to see that there are people who came from their circumstances that made it, that they can also make it, and I think that that kind of role modeling has to be present and accounted for every day."

We are happy to report that according to administrators at POPs, Perez has indeed called his daughter, and the two have been forging a new relationship.