In the Brighton Park home where Alexis Tellez lives with his parents, one wall is decorated with photos of family members in caps and gowns, beaming proudly at the camera at their high school graduations.
Tellez wasn’t sure if his photo would ever be on the wall — and when he was 17, he didn’t care.
During his junior year at Curie Metro High School, academics were the last thing on his mind. His social life entered around his street gang. He struggled with schoolwork, skipped classes, came home late and didn’t listen to his parents.
Today, at 20, Tellez sees his graduation photo on that wall every day. By his senior year, he’d stopped cutting class, found a better crowd and earned a diploma.
Everything changed when he learned he was going to be a father.
“When my son was born I knew it was time to become a man,” said Tellez, who has custody of his son, Tonny, and is the sole provider. He attends Kennedy-King College and works full-time at a hotel.
Besides teaching his son English and Spanish, Tellez, who is hearing-impaired, also teaches Tonny American Sign Language so he can communicate with his mother, who is deaf. The boy and his mother have contact only through the occasional video chat.
Helping him juggle it all is One Hope United, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to helping teens and young adults navigate parenthood.
For over 120 years, One Hope United has helped new parents learn everything from how to change a diaper to how to prepare their child for school. Each year, the organization helps more than 10,000 children and families in Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Florida.
The organization’s WINGS program focuses on Chicago parents ages 16 to 23, providing in-home visits from birth to age 3. The program’s two social workers serve up to 80 families per year — but Tellez is the program’s first single father.
“There are some families that have fathers in the home, or fathers who may be involved in co-parenting, but this is the first time a dad is the primary parent,” said Adrienne Patterson-Green, director of programs of home visiting services for One Hope United.
“A lot of times teen parents are in a position where they discover a pregnancy that may not have been planned, and they may find themselves not having a lot of support from friends and family.”
WINGS social workers visit parents weekly — and on flexible schedules that often follow young parents through couch-surfing phases or stays in homeless shelters.
“We try to meet them where they are,” said Patterson-Green.
One Hope United also hosts monthly workshops for parents. Recent workshops have included CPR training, cooking classes and discussions on healthy relationships.
Social workers help parents track their baby’s development and improve parent-child relationships through better communication. They also help parents address their own medical and mental health issues, secure housing, and set goals — like going back to school or finding a job.
Patterson-Green said it is crucial to help them believe they can be good parents.
“The biggest benefit these parents get is feeling confident and competent in terms of reading their child’s cues and being able to respond appropriately,” she said.
Deborah Bashir, Tellez’s social worker for over two years, has seen Tellez develop that confidence.
“When my son was born I wasn’t ready to be a father,” said Tellez, who cried the first time he held his son.
“But within one week of when he was born that changed,” said Tellez. “I’m a father now and I’m proud of it. It’s changed my life.”
Bashir said Tellez has benefited from the support of his own parents, and a natural knack for parenthood that includes a lot of patience with his toddler.
“He’s just very nurturing, very caring,” said Bashir. “It’s something I haven’t seen in a while in a dad.”
Tellez is “definitely one of our success stories,” Patterson-Green, adding that having a single father has helped the WINGS program expand.
“He’s been phenomenal in terms of helping us redefine our service delivery,” she said. “He’s helped us as much as we helped him.”
One Hope United has launched an online “Wishbook” to solicit donations for things besides basic needs, such as driver’s ed classes, a child’s birthday party or dressy clothes for a job interview.
To donate, visit www.onehopeunited.org.