The men in the support group don't hold back.
They talk about their feelings. About addiction. About pain - the pain they've brought on their families and themselves. About their desire to change, to become better men.
Hashim Nuraldin, the group's facilitator, listens intently.
Then he shares a little bit of his own story, which includes substance abuse - "I became a very irresponsible person because of a rock of cocaine" - and prison time. He says that it wasn't until he left his family and friends and moved somewhere new that "change began to happen."
"If we don't understand how we got on the path we got on, we're at risk of returning," Nuraldin tells the men, who are seated around tables in a small conference room at the City Mission of Schenectady.
The weekly support group is sponsored by Community Fathers Inc., a Schenectady non-profit organization that helps men become better parents. The idea is that supporting fatherhood strengthens a community where single-parent households are distressingly common.
"When we looked around, we realized that fatherlessness was one of the biggest problems in the community," Walter Simpkins, the executive director of Community Fathers, told me. "We needed a place where men could talk about being fathers and what to do to be better fathers."
It's a unique approach to a longstanding problem, and it fills a definite need.
I observed the Community Fathers support group twice, and was impressed both times.
The meetings are emotionally raw and honest, and confront difficult, complex and emotionally fraught topics.
The discussions are wide-ranging, and while it touches upon fatherhood and family relationships, the focus tended to be elsewhere, on the personal problems that can make it hard to be a good father, such as substance abuse, incarceration, low self-esteem and poverty.
"You cannot be a good father if you don't feel good about yourself," Simpkins said. "Many of (the fathers in our program) come from a world where love was scarce. When you feel that love is scarce and that people don't love you, you respond to the world in a certain manner."
Nuraldin told me that "every last one" of the men in the support group is working to repair a relationship.
"I'm always telling the guys, 'If you're all right, your child is going to be all right,'" Nuraldin said. "Raising a child is not easy, especially when you've been away from your child for periods of time."
Nuraldin knows this all too well.
He spent over 19 years in prison, and had two young children when he went away.
"I need the men in the support group to know I've had the same experiences they've had," Nuraldin explains. "They can call me, ask me questions." On the night I sit in on the support group, he shares some of his hard-won knowledge with the men. "We can't be afraid to talk to our children," he says.
Nuraldin can be soft-spoken, but his comments are insightful and wise, and the men listen when he speaks.
Community Fathers began as a support group organized by Simpkins and other fathers in the community. The group gradually evolved and now offers an array of programs aimed at helping teenagers and men.
These programs include a mentorship program pairs younger fathers with older, more experienced fathers, a male achievers program for students at Schenectady High School, a support group for inmates at the Schenectady County Jail and a program that seeks to rehabilitate perpetrators of domestic violence.
"We feel the therapeutic value of one father helping another is invaluable," Simpkins said.
The support group I sat in on runs for 12 weeks, then takes a two week break. It's open to anyone who wants to attend, but the majority of men there are living at the City Mission.
Sixty-year-old William Gregg is a City Mission resident who attends the support group regularly.
"I've learned so many things, about how to accept my faults, how to work through them, how to be a better person," Gregg told me.
He added, "I was always a father to my children. My parents taught me how to be responsible, how to get a job. But I made a mistake when I picked up drugs."
One of the most inspiring things about Community Fathers is its underlying philosophy: that anyone can change, at any time.
"Change is hard, but change is always possible," Anthony Mayers, a City Mission employee who co-facilitates the support group with Nuraldin, tells the men. "Change doesn't come overnight. Change comes with some work."
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]