Alberto Garcia talking to boys at a Boys & Girls Club in Humboldt Park.

Alberto Garcia (left) helps boys think about what it means to be a man. They were gathered at the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs’ Barreto Club in Humboldt Park. The conversation sometimes involves his numerous tattoos. “I have a lot of friends on my body,” he says.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Filling the void left by absent fathers

Union League Boys & Girls Club program helps boys navigate their journey to manhood.

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“What’s a real man?”

Alberto Garcia writes that question and two others on a whiteboard in a social room on the second floor of the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs’ Barreto Club in Humboldt Park. Facing him are a dozen boys — eight 8 to 11 years old; the other four are teenage mentors.

“I want you guys to think really deep,” says Garcia, 27. “Three questions. No. 1, male stereotypes. No. 2 is, ‘What is a real man?’ Then a mural idea. If you had a blank wall, or could put up anything. That breakout session starts now.”

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They divide into two tables to discuss the topic. At one, Shacole, 13, and takes the lead. He quizzes each younger boy in turn.

“What is your definition of a man?” he asks the kid next to him.

“Somebody who pays the rent,” answers Malachi, 11. “Who has a good living and a job. Takes care of himself.”

They bump fists. Shacole turns to the next boy.

“What is your definition of a man?”

“Working hard,” says Tawan, 11. “Helping others.”

“What is your definition of a man, Avian?”

“Someone who cares, first of all, about yourself,” says the boy, also 11. “Respect everyone. Caring. Not just a man’s job to make all the money.”

Shacole adds his own perspective.

“Caring, self-respect,” he says, ticking qualities off on his fingers. “They don’t beat on people. It’s not the man’s job to make ALL the money.”

Welcome to “Passport to Manhood,” an eight-week program the Union League Boys & Girls Club uses to help fill the void created by absent fathers. There is also a Smart Girls program, for female members.

“It teaches young Black and Brown kids the importance of knowing who they are,” says Jeremy Murphy, senior club director at the Barreto Club. “Talking about identity. Many of them don’t know who they are, and it’s tough to know where they’re going if you don’t know those basic things.”

A pair of newcomers, twin 8-year-old brothers, are mostly silent, watching with large, exhausted eyes. Living in areas where poverty and crime are rampant is draining.

“One topic we talk about is mental health,” says Murphy. “Some of our kids tell us, ‘We’re just tired of life.’ One of the biggest things we give them is a sense of belonging.”

Growing up without a father is the rule, not the exception, in many areas of the city. Two-thirds of Black children live in a single-parent home. For whites, it’s 25%. Among both groups, that lone parent typically is the mother: single mothers outnumber single fathers four to one.

“Most of them don’t have that father figure at home,” says Garcia, who grew up in Humboldt Park. “They get to learn the transition of going from a boy to becoming a man, the responsibilities of being a man in the world today.”

It’s a void that, though great, can be overcome. A day earlier, former president Barack Obama kicked off his new podcast with an interview with rock star Bruce Springsteen. One of the first things they talk about is their fathers.

“My dad was absent,” Obama says. “I think that can contribute to that sense of ‘I’m not sure how I’m supposed to behave or supposed to act.’”

Obama’s story worked out well. Over at the Union League Boys and Girls Club, the boys are working on starting their own journeys on the right foot.

They move to stereotypes.

“Men gotta be fit.”

“Men can’t wear pink.”

“Men can’t cry.”

Here the teenage mentors jump in.

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you you’re not allowed to cry,” says Emilio, 18, a student at nearby Clemente High School. “If somebody tells you that, it’s wrong. You’re human.”

The danger of bottling up your emotions is discussed.

“If you can’t talk to somebody, you should go where you can talk to somebody,” Malachi observes.

Toward the end, conversation shifts into what women are looking for: money, a house, stability. Garcia floats the idea that nothing is more attractive to a woman than a man who has his head together.

“Instead of trying to find the one, be the one,” says Garcia.

Afterward, I ask Shacole why he took the lead in the conversation. Because, at 13, he’s a little older?

“I’m just a good influencer,” he says.

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