Derek Liggins never thought he would see the day.

After eight years behind bars for selling drugs, Liggins decided to turn his life around. He joined STRIVE Baltimore, a program that specializes in helping fathers and hard-to-employ Baltimoreans. That program later became the Center for Urban Families, which has been recognized for its success.

That success is the reason why the center was honored May 17 with a visit from President Obama during a trip to Baltimore. And because of his hard work, Liggins, now a mentor at the center, was chosen to be among the few from the organization—including staff, administrators and clients—selected to meet Obama.

“I would have never thought that a person from my background would be sitting in the room with the President, but that shows you that as long as you stay on the right path, the possibilities are endless,” said Liggins, the father of four.

Days after the visit, clients and employees were still riding a wave of excitement from the visit.Liggins and a handful of other graduates, current clients, partners, and high-ranking staff had the opportunity to meet the president as he made his third and final stop on the Baltimore leg of the Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour, a White House initiative that kicked off earlier this month in Austin, Tex.

“The President’s message to our program participants and employer partners was one of investment. To our participants, he encouraged them to invest in themselves, prepare for the world of work, and transfer what they achieved to their children so our communities can be better,” said Center CEO Joseph T. Jones, on the agency’s website. “To our employer partners, he praised them for investing in individuals who, in spite of challenging circumstances, have worked to get themselves on a path to a brighter future. This is a great day.”

The center was founded by Jones in 1999 to provide parenting and workforce development services to low-income fathers. It’s work expanded to include “restoring families and rebuilding communities.” Mothers are now included in some programs, the website said.

“Jones’ work in Baltimore championing responsible fatherhood as the key element of strong, economically-secure urban families has been recognized both locally and nationally,” according to the site.”Jones served on Obama’s Taskforce on Fatherhood and Healthy Families. He was a community advisor during the Clinton/Gore administration.

Chenelle Rollins, development coordinator for the center, said the agency was hand-picked by White House officials for their work in developing Baltimore’s workforce with in-depth training. The center also works to strengthen the bonds of urban families with programs such as and the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project and Couples Advancing Together, which promotes healthy communication and relationships between parents of young children.

The purpose, she said, is to “get fathers in a position to provide for their children emotionally and financially even if they do not live in the home with the child every day.” And to give them confidence.

Liggins said that one of his biggest challenges was simply learning how to smile.
“I had a problem with not smiling, especially with my background– you didn’t walk around smiling,” he said. “My instructor told me I didn’t give her that ‘warm and fuzzy feeling’ and that if she was an employer in an interview… she wasn’t going to hire me.”

Liggins homework assignment for that day was to go home and practice smiling in the mirror. He was also told by his instructor that he needed to have a smile on his face each time she saw him the next day.

When asked how he faired on the assignment, Liggins told the {AFRO} he smiled “till my jaws hurt.”

He had sore jaws after meeting Obama.

“I thought it was historic to be able to sit down with the leader of the free world and have a conversation,” said Liggins.

Marcus Dixon, a father of two who studies pharmacology at Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) said meeting Obama was an inspirational moment that made him realize “anything is possible.”

Dixon, 29, first came to the center at the suggestion of a family member who saw he was struggling with employment. He’s now working and excelling in school.
Meeting Obama, he said, “tops my bucket list.”


Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer