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The father of all support groups

Craig McGruder tilts his head to hear a plea for help in the heart of Watts.

"I've got trouble," says a guy who used to run with the Grape Street Crips. "Been thinking about doing some dirt. Thinking about robbing so I can get my kids the school supplies they need."

McGruder understands trouble. He'd grown up with most of the men meeting in this white-walled community center on a midsummer night. Some had been dealers who'd sold him crack when he was at his lowest, skulking around Jordan Downs, where he'd been born in 1962 and never much left.

"You can't do it," McGruder says, surprising himself because he's always tended to be quiet. "You got too much to lose. If you get caught and locked up, how can you be there for your kids?"

The ex-gangster gets an earful, from McGruder and the others, their words splitting the air like an ax. "Don't let us down." He lowers his head and agrees.

About two dozen men come every Wednesday night to these gatherings; many have lived lives full of terrible choices. They know they've brought pain to their community, one of the nation's toughest housing projects.

"This is no group of guys who've been choirboys," says one of their leaders, Mike Cummings, known simply as "Big Mike." "They take responsibility for it. And they're trying to make things right."

These men have formed a street-level support group, raw and uncensored. Their goal? Becoming what most of them didn't have while growing up: good fathers.

Their meetings, off-limits to outsiders without group approval, can feel staid at times. Then, in a flash, everything changes. Men raised to mask all feeling crack with emotion. They worry about losing their kids to violence or angry mothers or foster care. They wonder how to safeguard daughters or teach boys to become men. They talk about their mothers, and some of them cry.

McGruder stands out. Fifty, gray-haired, his round face framing a gentle smile, the men have voted him Father of the Year. He lives for these gatherings, which are led by a trio of former Crips and the only white person — and only woman — in the room, a professor of social work at UCLA whom the men have come to see as a confidant.

Each week McGruder's twin 17-year-olds, Victor and Vincent, sit shyly next to him in folding chairs. He makes them come. They need to learn.

His boys are about to have children of their own.

::

It started in 2009 on a patch of grass outside the Jordan Downs gym. A group of ex-Crips gave haircuts and grilled hamburgers, hoping families and fathers would show up, relax and begin to talk.

"Growing up the way we did, during the time we did, a lot of the dads might as well have been in some other world," says Andre "Low Down" Christian, one of the leaders. "It's a big reason why things ended up as rough as they did here."

He tells of getting into a fight and tracking down his father for advice. His father gave him brass knuckles and a sawed-off shotgun.

"There had to be a better way of looking at being a dad," he says. "That's what we wanted people to think about."

Those initial weeks in front of the gym, five people came. The local fire station donated steaks and a barbecue. Time passed. Twenty arrived. Then 25.

John King, the Los Angeles Housing Authority official who oversees the community center, was already trying to change the culture in Jordan Downs as preparations were made to rebuild the 700-unit apartment complex. He offered his support and told the men to use his conference room.

By the summer of 2011, backed by a $50,000 grant from the nonprofit Children's Institute, the loose amalgamation of men became something more formal. Now they had a name, Project Fatherhood, and were part of a regional network of meetings the institute sponsored, focusing on men and their kids.

The Watts group has the feel of an urban barbershop: full of jokes and jealousy, grace and anger. Early on, two street toughs entered the room as the men spoke. Wearing trench coats, not saying a word, they walked around the oval of tables, suspiciously checking out the scene.

"They were wondering what exactly was going on with these older dudes," says the UCLA professor, Jorja Leap, who, assuming the toughs were carrying shotguns, followed the fathers' lead and didn't say a word. "They had to see for themselves what this meeting was about. Was it a threat to them? When they found out what we were doing, they gave their OK."

Project Fatherhood became part of the fabric of Jordan Downs. As the Wednesdays piled up, the men grew comfortable talking about their problems. They "were carrying deep troubles, questions and fears about being dads," Leap says. "Problem was, they didn't have many examples of good fathering, so they were coming up with answers from scratch."

::

McGruder grew up barely knowing his father. In his 20s, his mother died of cancer; he stopped going to community college and turned to drugs to ease the pain. In his 30s, he was one of the addicts who struggled for daily survival in Jordan Downs, sleeping on the streets, in cars, inside abandoned apartments.

Still, there were periods when he stayed sober enough to work construction and janitorial jobs. He even found a way to form a fractured bond with his six children, especially the youngest of the bunch, his twins.

"I'd be living in some abandoned apartment and I'd have them over for haircuts or just to talk," he says. "When they came, everything had to be clean. Every corner, spotless. Even then, I wanted to give them something, wanted to be that loving father. But those drugs had hold of my life."

One ex-dealer in Project Fatherhood remembers seeing McGruder smoke from a crack pipe, then stand in the darkness, begging God for deliverance. In 2009, he spent a year in prison for breaking into an apartment and stealing from it, his second such felony. Stuck in a cell, he read the Bible front to back, decided to quit drugs and relied on his faith to survive his withdrawals.

"Keep going with the drugs, and I knew I would die from it," he says. "No easy choice, but it was clear."

When he returned home from prison, he came to his first fathers meeting. He was looking for help.

"He was taking a lot of initiative with his boys," King says. "Everyone could tell how close he was with them, the way he stayed on them. He demanded they do their schoolwork, their chores, that they behave in certain ways. We need more men with that attitude about their kids."

Soon McGruder was a regular. Like the others, he was changing. "I started to talk," he says. "There was a lot stuffed down inside me. Did me good to communicate about what we were all going through."

But it wasn't easy. He lived off $400 a month in food stamps and welfare checks and hoped to get construction work after taking training classes sponsored by Project Fatherhood. But nobody was hiring.

Early last year, his twins, juniors at nearby Jordan High, pulled him aside and told him that their girlfriends were pregnant. At first he blamed himself for not being around enough to teach them about safe sex. Then he put the blame behind and focused on the future.

"I told the twins this: 'No abortions, I don't believe in abortions,'" McGruder says. "And I made it clear they were going to come to the meetings with me, every Wednesday. They were going to listen to every word the older fathers said. They could take some of the advice and throw out the stuff they didn't like, but they were coming with me."

::

They sit close together, near the back of the conference room, McGruder and his sons, Vincent broad-shouldered, Victor slim-hipped, listening.

One evening there's a discussion that might take place at a parenting group in a faraway suburb: where to get good baby formula, how best to bottle feed, the importance of being open and honest. The next week the talk is more particular to Jordan Downs: raising families on welfare; keeping kids from being killed by gangs from nearby neighborhoods; maintaining dignity when you're a father struggling to find work.

The two topics discussed with the most passion? The men's mothers and the virtues of old-fashioned discipline.

"Good Lord, we love our mamas," says one of the men on a midsummer night. But it's complicated. Some of their mothers were drug addicts. Some had dangerous boyfriends or were quick-tempered.

"You all remember mine," McGruder says. "Anyone in these projects needed anything when they were boys, they could come to her."

The men agree. Everyone remembers Miss McGruder.

"But oh Lord, she laid some whuppings on me," he says. "All of our mothers did. That discipline is what's missing with our kids these days."

There are cackles of laughter. Children in the neighborhood, one father argues, "need to learn fear." Without fear they can become teens who talk back to the police. If that happens, the police will surely jail, beat or even kill them.

The reasoning hangs in the air, solemn, serious, seen as fact. "Tell it!"

Leap, married to a former LAPD commander who once patrolled Jordan Downs, tries to get the group to consider alternatives to corporal punishment. Some of the men say she's just plain wrong. Talking and "time-outs" might work in wealthy white neighborhoods, but not here.

Sensing she's going to lose this debate, at least for now, Leap reminds the men of how the law defines child abuse. "No closed fists, nothing to the head, fellas, nothing."

Big Mike joins her. "No bruises or cuts. You do that, not only is it wrong, but your kids are gonna be taken by the authorities."

The men tell of being lashed by extension cords, shut inside closets, clocked in the jaw for stealing candy bars. They say that looking back at it all helps them understand. They promise to use talk and reason, to back off from the harshness they knew as kids. But they aren't about to change completely.

"My boys are grown now, so I talk them into doing right," McGruder says. "If I find out they are not going to school, that's different. They have to go to school so they can be better than me. They start skipping class, talking back to teachers, well, I'm not going to abuse them, but I'm going to whup them."

He glances at his sons. Both stare at the linoleum floor, arms crossed, timid, as the fathers keep on talking.

::

August. Vincent becomes the father of a baby boy, Vincent Jr. Two weeks later, Victor becomes the father of a baby girl, Kaylin.

Despite the hardships they hear about each week, the boys are sure they'll end up leaving public housing, sure they will support their families by joining the military, playing pro football, maybe becoming mechanics.

For now, the boys live in their mother's Jordan Downs apartment. On the weekends, their girlfriends and babies stay over, and McGruder is a constant presence. He's still jobless and uncertain, but he keeps his perspective. He's been sober three years. The meetings have taught him to speak to his family when he's angry at the world or upset at himself for the past.

And there's a new generation to help.

On a recent night he stands with his sons as the new generation is introduced to Project Fatherhood: the twins carefully cradling their babies, the men looking on, granting nods of approval.

"Victor and Vincent, here comes the hard part," one father says. "Just raise the bar, is all we ask. Do better than we did."

The twins keep quiet.

"They will, they will," McGruder says, touching Kaylin on the cheek. "They will."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

This is one in an occasional series of stories on the attempt to remake Jordan Downs.

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