“The love between a father and daughter is forever.” – Unknown
One night in Birmingham, Mario McGill’s father went out after work with a coworker. Little did he know, his life would end that night in an effort to defend a woman who was being physically and verbally attacked by her intoxicated male partner. Mario was only two-years-old when he traumatically lost his father.
“I only remember bits and pieces from my mother,” said Mario. “I didn’t really have a father figure to raise me and be a positive influence.”
In high school, Mario filled the void of paternal validation with deviant behavior and powerful substances—he submerged himself into alcohol and drugs.
As he got older, he started a young family, raising his daughter Marissa. But his addictions intensified. “I didn’t want to man up and do what I was supposed to do. I didn’t accept life unless it was on my terms. I ran to alcohol and drugs whenever there was a problem.” Mario would disappear from home for long periods of time. Eventually, he began getting into trouble with the law.
“I got caught up in a lot of crime, drugs, and alcohol,” he said. “I was in and out of prison. I was in and out of my daughter’s life. I lacked personal responsibility to be a good influence as a father. I didn’t give. I took.”
Marissa said she remembered praying that God would one day take the alcohol away from her dad.
In prison, Mario would send Marissa letters and call her mother to check on her. “I always kept in contact with my family, but I wasn’t present like a father should be. To be there and talk with her and be a good example.”
Mario hit rock bottom in 2011. He was not in jail, but had become homeless and started sleeping under a bridge. He had no money and no job, or prospect thereof. “I found myself stealing to survive,” he recalled.
When Mario landed in prison that year, it all came to a head. “I got tired of being disconnected. I got tired of living an unproductive lifestyle. Time was passing me by and I knew I really had to change.”
Mario said he gave his life to God and vowed, “If you give me the opportunity to get out, I will be the best father I can be. I will get my act together.”
In what seemed to be a supernatural intervention, Mario did receive an opportunity. “I was supposed to be in prison until 2020. But I was paroled in June of 2016. God blessed me.”
His first day out he faced a barrier. He did not have anyone there for him to pick him up from the bus station so that he could make it to his reentry program. He has no way of contacting his parole counsellor, who was unaware of the situation and didn’t know what was going on. Consequently, Mario spent the night at a homeless shelter. Memories from his previous life came flooding back. No job, no money, no home—but this time was different. “It was my responsibility if I wanted to be successful,” he said. “My daughter was my motivation. I knew God had a plan for me.” Marissa’s mother had passed away in 2016 so the thirteen-year-old had moved to Alabama to stay with her grandmother.
Since his only form of identification was his prison I.D., he knew he needed help navigating the proper steps to self-sustainability, including engaging in healthy relationships to keep him accountable. “So I got up in the morning, went to Central Pres church and met a guy. He told me about another program that could help me stay on the right path. I went over that morning.”
The program he walked into is called Georgia Works, which helps chronically homeless men overcome barriers through a holistic approach that treats both external issues, like finding employment and stable housing, and internal issues, like substance dependency, broken relationships, and mental health.
Mario was 38 when he joined Georgia Works. As a participant, he had to agree to forsake all drugs and alcohol. He attended classes like Men Making Better Decisions, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Fatherhood. He went to church every Sunday. For five months, he worked various contract jobs and met with his case manager, a counselor, and a therapist. “All my life, everything I started I never finished. But I was tired of being unsuccessful. I wanted to be able to provide for my daughter. Plus, I made a vow to God that I would do everything I possibly can.”
One of the core philosophies of the program is the rehabilitating power of a job. A job reignites the innate dignity within every human being. The ability to produce and create re-instills a positive belief in oneself. For Mario, the employment opportunities provided by Georgia Works taught him to be mentally strong. “I learned how to take instruction and follow instructions. Before, my life was unmanageable, now my life is discipline,” he said. “The most important thing is being humble.”
Since its founding in 2013, Georgia Works has helped nearly 700 men like Mario get their lives back and attain self-sufficiency. One hundred percent of participants are hired by the time they graduate. Eighty percent remain in their original jobs and apartments. Ninety percent of graduates reunite with their families.
That last statistic is miraculous.
“Guys come in and get better but their kids and wife are still hurt,” said Phillip Hunter, Executive Director of Georgia Works. “When the last thing you remember is the stolen rent money to go get high, it can get volatile when the guys try to go back home.”
To help bring families back together, Georgia Works provides a certified counselor to meet with the men and their wives or partners and children. The third-party mediator makes the transitions smoother and outcomes better, said Hunter. “Often men, especially in the African American culture, stay away from sharing their feelings and carry a lot of anger with no outlet. Diving back into those areas in our lives that are sensitive and are sore, it can be hard to be truthful. But a mediator helps make delving into those things easier and creates a safer environment, and merges folks back together to find healing.”
Mario graduated from Georgia Works in 2016 and obtained a job at a restaurant. After working there for a year, Georgia Works hired him as a site supervisor, a role he’s been serving in for a year and a half and is currently in training to be a case manager for the nonprofit. He now supports Marissa financially every month and has his own place where she stays when she visits on school breaks. Mario goes to see her as often as he can.
“I just visited her for her sweet sixteen birthday,” said Mario. “I was able to give her money for a new pair of tennis shoes and for a trip to Cozumel, Mexico.”
At the party, Mario didn’t have a drop of alcohol. He hasn’t for over a year. Marissa noticed.
“He’s changed a lot,” she said. “He’s better now. I like that he calls me more.”
Mario calls his daughter every week and shares words of wisdom, sharing honestly and praying with her. They read the Bible together.
“My goal was to get my family back and have an active relationship with my daughter,” he said. “Georgia Works helped me with my vision for my future and family. I learned to have endurance and longevity with what I’m working on.”
Family interaction is an outcome Georgia Works tracks closely. Studies have demonstrated that paternal involvement in a teen’s life—playing a sport, helping with homework, talking about a personal problem—significantly increases the likelihood the child will graduate and succeed academically. The program measures these interactions on a weekly basis.
“Kids need fathers in their lives,” said Phil Hunter. “If we can keep the family unit tight and close, the kids will have better outcomes. One of our men got his life back on track and his daughter moved in with him. As a result, she graduated from high school. She wouldn’t have graduated otherwise based on the elements and negative environment she was previously surrounded with.”
Mario is making progress towards the same outcome—for Marissa to live under his roof again. Every day brings that day closer and closer.
Mario’s advice for struggling fathers is to never lose hope. “No matter what you’re going through and facing, believe that better days are coming. Life can get better. Look at my life—I was an addict and in and out of prison. I had lost hope. But God changed my life and gave me a second chance. I had to start believing a better life was possible.”
Father’s Day is a meaningful day for Mario to reflect on everything he’s been through and overcome, and also where he’s headed. “In times past I was a deadbeat dad. But Georgia Works taught me how to be a man. Today, I’m glad that I have the privilege to celebrate this day with my baby girl.”
Mario’s father may not be around today to meet his granddaughter and witness his son’s redemptive story, but there is no doubt that if he could, he would be celebrating along with them.