By Kim Danek, Office of Child Support Enforcement
You might know about Etan Thomas from a number of different perspectives—published poet, noted book author, blog writer, maybe NBA veteran. Many poor and underprivileged young men across the country know Etan from a different perspective. To them, he is an inspiration, a man who could have been like them but avoided the gangs and drugs that surrounded him when he was their age. The fact that Etan had great mentors and positive family members made a tremendous difference. “My mom always told us we were better than what was going on around us and that we could make something more of ourselves,” said Etan. Today, he has made it a life mission to pass that wisdom on to others.
During his early years in the NBA, Etan started going into inner-city schools to talk to kids. What he found is that they had rarely been told their lives were worth anything. “Their faces light up when they can see that other people express themselves about how they made it—a switch goes up—they feel positive,” he said. Today he runs a national Fatherhood Movement that regularly takes him to schools, faith-based groups, and juvenile detention facilities. He also facilitates panel discussions and enlists other influential people he has met along the way. “When we are speaking to them, we can literally see the light bulb turn on by their expressions. Unfortunately, nobody is speaking positivity into them, only negativity.” He is trying to change that.
Etan’s visits have taken him into institutions such as the New York City juvenile correctional facility at Riker's Island and the DC Jail in Washington, DC, among others. He says it’s hard to see a room full of hundreds of young men, all under 18 years old, in orange jump suits. Many are fathers themselves and yet many never had fathers or other strong male role models who were a consistent, positive part of their lives. “They would tell me how they were so terrified because they’re afraid of failing … like what was done to them.” Etan drills into their heads phrases such as, “‘You are special.’ or ‘You can be anything in life you want to be.’ It is something that they rarely hear, if ever."
Etan’s outreach has gotten him national attention. In 2009, President Obama asked him to be part of the White House Fatherhood Initiative Town Hall. ACF is a proud partner of the fatherhood initiative offering empowerment programs in our Office of Family Assistance, Administration for Native Americans, and Office of Child Support Enforcement. This year Etan has been asked to be part of the planning for President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. For Etan, it’s another chance to reach at-risk young men with positive messages. “You can let them know you’ve been through this. If their expectation is low, they won’t try; if you inspire them, they’ll reach for the stars. I try to inspire.”
For more information about Etan Thomas’ background and outreach efforts, read the cover article in the June Child Support Report.