"If we're dealing with two or three generations of problems, how can you strip it away in 18 months?"

Tom Henry (right) with one of his "commitments," Winford Hayes, a lab animal technician at Penn.

Photo by Dwight Luckey


Manager, University Laboratory Animal Resources
Length of service:
32 years
Other stuff:
While serving as a surrogate relative, he's never lost sight of the need to be there for his own son and daughter.

Meet Tom Henry, one totally committed guy.

For nearly three decades, he has intimately involved himself in the lives of young black fathers, encouraging them to be better parents while bettering themselves. In doing so, he has bucked the conventional wisdom, which argues against caregivers becoming too attached to those they help.

Those arguments, says he, are hogwash. And he has both numbers and testimonials to back up his claim, such as the seven Penn employees who have participated in his support groups in the past.

In all of his programs, Henry has held fast to a few core principles: Be there for the participants whenever they need you. Involve the whole family - nuclear and extended - in the effort. And focus on the long term, because the problems can't be solved on the quick or the cheap.

Q. What is Total Commitment, and how is it different from the Responsive Fathers Program [RFP] which you ran?
The Responsive Fathers Program was focused primarily on the fathers, to see if we could access Job Training Partnership Act dollars to train young men to get jobs and pay support. There was also a curriculum that we dealt with in that program that involved life skills, decision-making, male-female communication, all those types of things.
   But what you realize after a short period of time, that there's no way you could deal with this in the short term or without dealing with the whole family, dealing with it in a holistic sense.
   A lot of times, particularly in the African-American community, aunts and uncles are sometimes the caregivers. Brothers - older brothers fill that male role model. So you find yourself having to deal with uncles, aunts, grandmothers...so we may start out with a young man and then we'd end up working with the extended family on both sides. And that's why I called it Total Commitment.

Q. How does Total Commitment operate?
It's a support group as opposed to a program. In the RFP, there were very defined goals, outcomes and evaluation, all of that. If you wanted additional funds in the future, you had to show these [results].
   But I have no funding to do this program. I do this on my own with the resources that my wife and I have and the networking with friends that have been extremely helpful to me.

Q. Are you seeking funding for your program?
Even if somebody wanted to come in today and give me a grant, the price tag might be too high for me, if I cannot do it the way I want to do it, and that is to be involved and be a part of their family. For instance, if Harold Carter [a technician in Physical Plant who participated in the RFP] has a problem today, he knows he can come talk to me some 20 years later, that I'm still there for him if he needs me.
   ...I think most of these programs are not long-term, they take an assembly-line approach. But if we're dealing with maybe two or three generations of problems, how can you strip it away in six months or 18 months?

Q. You'd really like to function as an additional family member for these guys. Am I off base on that?
No, I don't think so. I like to be a role model. And if the role that I play takes on that of a father or an uncle, so be it. I have to get their respect, and they put the title on me of what I mean to them.
   Some people have sort of accused me of hand-feeding people too much. They say you've got to make people do things on their own. Let me say this to you. If you have enough money, you can have people hand-feed you the rest of your life. It's done every day with the wealthy. They buy and get what they want and our families and ancestors have served them for a lifetime. My grandmother spent her lifetime hand-feeding white people's children. So why shouldn't [the men in my group] have the same opportunities?

Q. Has this put any stress on your own family, or are they all in it with you?
All in it with me. My daughter sometimes says that she's never going to go with a guy who plays softball, because they all played in my league, or we were laughing about how many Saturdays she had to get up and go to her brother's basketball games and stuff. But we were recently sitting at the dinner table, and she said, "We had a happy childhood." And she asked her brother, "Didn't we?" And he said, "Yes, we had a good time as children." That's special to me.
   If you talked to the social workers, the people who do this kind of stuff all the time, they'd say that it's not healthy if you do it the way I do it. You shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that... well, I can only do what I feel God gave me talents to do. And that's a higher judge of qualifications than anybody can put to me.
   I had a guy say to me, "I've never seen anyone like you in my life that [has] that much conviction - to just turn away money like that!" Because it's just not that important for me. My payment comes from seeing people be successful.

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Originally published on January 14, 1999