This is the story of Jesus Benitez, who grew up in the Bronx next to a Bloods block, who was a single father at 17. Refusing to settle for a life of low wages and long hours, he joins a fatherhood program to fight for a better life for him and his son.
Jesus Benitez, 21, is a highschool dropout and a single father from the Bronx. After his son was born, he struggled to support him and his family through a cashier job, but he wanted something more for his son.
He joined the LaGuardia Community College’s CUNY Fatherhood Program, a free, 4-month program sponsored by Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative and the Open Society Foundation. The program offers GED preparation classes and parenting information sessions to single fathers aged 18 to 24 and places them in jobs and internships.
“It inspired me,” Benitez says. “I just went for the GED. I didn’t plan to go to college or anything.”
After graduating from the program, Benitez is now a student at LaGuardia, majoring in computer programming. He wakes up at 5 in the morning to drop his son off school and go to his own classes. He still works at a catering company on the weekends, but his dream is to be a programmer.
And his son Mason?
“Actually we started [school] together this September. He likes school,” he says, laughing. He himself had never connected with school as a child. “That’s good.”
In the Bronx, a young father fights for a better life for his son
Jesus Benitez is one of many fathers whose life changed after enrolling in Mayor Bloomberg’s fatherhood program.
JB: I was so scared to hold my son; I don’t like touching newborn babies. I don’t know why; they’re scary.
JB: Mason. You gotta go to school, Papi.
JB: My son’s name is Mason. It was the last name I could get. I had the paper ready, I needed a name, and Mason was the best name of all the names I picked.
MB: You need to take a shower, Papi.
JB: Me? I already took a shower.
JB: I was 17. My son was gonna be born already. I was working already part-time but I wasn’t make enough money. I also wanted help my mom pay the rent and everything and then have enough for my son. I couldn’t do none of that altogether, so I decided to drop out of school. I grew up with my stepdad for a bit. But then he just walked out. I didn’t have no connection with him and I didn’t intend to make one, so I wanted my son to have something different.
CUNY Fatherhood, it was nothing I expected. It really taught me how to be a better father. There’s a guy that comes and tells us like, how to make good choices with parents. They helped me get my GED. It inspired me because I just went for the GED, honestly. I wasn’t planning to go college or anything. But they push me, you know. They were like, ‘listen, you could do better.’ I wanted to be a computer programmer but now I also wanna help people just like them.
We had this thing we used to say cycle-breakers because instead of doing our daily routine we step out of the comfort zone and try to do something better for ourselves. Every day I would go to work and in the train, drinking my coffee, thinking ‘how is it gonna be in five years? How is he gonna look at me?’ Is he gonna want to drop out when he grows up? And I knew it was gonna kill me because I never connected with school since from the beginning and doing it for him, it’s been easy.
Teacher: Good job, Mason.
MB: Bye, Papi.
JB: As a kid my mom told me I was really calm. I would stay in one spot and play in one spot. And Mason just goes everywhere. And he likes movies; a lot of movies. He could watch the same movie 30 times the same day. That’s a little annoying.I try to get mad but I can’t. Not anymore. I love him so much. When he grows up? I haven’t even thought about that, honestly. I’m still trying to get in the process of trying to finish college and everything. I want him to see that what I’m doing could probably inspire him to do something better than probably what I’m doing.
Mason is the smartest, most precocious little boy I've ever met. He was so fascinated by the camera that he often jumped out of my shot to look at the viewfinder so he could take over and do a movie about his Papi.
He also used the shoulder mount as an obstacle course for his Mario and Luigi stuffed toys, which is not a bad use of the thing at all. He's the only child I've ever seen who wakes up giggling at 6 in the morning, who is so obviously deeply loved.