ELLENTON -- Of all possible places they could have chosen, the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute (NLFFI) picked Ellenton to send two of its representatives to explore the need for a fatherhood program in South Georgia.

There are numerous programs for teen mothers, for example, but none for teen fathers. That is a gap the NLFFI and local agencies wish to bridge, particularly in the Latino population.

Bobby Lee Verdugo and Hector Perez-Pacheco flew from Los Angeles, where they have achieved much success with a teen father program, to speak to a gathering of about 30 professionals who work within the local Hispanic community. Ellenton is the smallest town the two have visited but it had, by and large, the biggest turnout, Verdugo said. The two hope to see as large or better of a crowd next month when they return for another forum.

"This is the first step -- getting support from the people," Perez-Pacheco said. "We're only successful if there's a program that happens here."

The NLFFI is a project of Bienvenidos Children's Center Inc. in collaboration with the National Compadres Network and Behavioral Assessment Inc. Funding is provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation. NLFFI has been on the leading edge on addressing issues affecting male responsibility and fatherhood issues.

NLFFI has outreach efforts at 20 sites nationwide involving communities to develop some type of fatherhood program, such as addressing anger management, fatherhood and family strengthening, literacy or playgroups.

Ellenton may become one of them, if all goes well.

Numerous issues face Latino fathers, including negotiating the child support system, welfare reform, child abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, school failure, illiteracy, teen pregnancy and other related issues. The NLFFI is presently looking at state and national policies that adversely affect Latino fathers, representatives said.

One such policy that affects Georgia Latinos is the failed push to allow driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Ellenton Clinic Director Cynthia Hernandez said.

Georgia's Hispanic population explosion screams the need for parental support services. Once an almost-exclusively transient population, many Latinos families are settling.

With that influx, comes the need for more bilingual workers in service agencies and increased involvement from Latino community leaders. Both are lacking in South Georgia, forum participants said.

Darrell Sabbs, a health planner with the Southwest Georgia Community Health Institute at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, was instrumental in getting the institute interested in sending delegates to Ellenton. Sabbs is interested in developing more health services directed at men.

Any fatherhood program must be male-friendly, he said. Given the language and culture barriers, Latino men particularly need a program developed by other Latinos to encourage participation.

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