Waymond Hayes | Giving Dads Hope in Detroit

October 24, 2023

Waymond Hayes shares the hopes and heartaches of the community on the south east side of Detroit. He grew up there and he’s now giving back to the people who molded him and inspired him to succeed. As director of early learning and youth development at Focus: HOPE, a Detroit Head Start center, he combats poverty, prejudice and social injustice. Hayes is also the first male administrator to helm a Head Start all-male leadership academy with male teachers and support staff, as he explains. “We offer a safe place where young boys of color can engage in activities they enjoy and build close ties with male teachers who look like them.”

The program also advances Hayes’ broader mission to help men become more involved in children’s lives. And reaching that goal can be hard in a place with many single-parent homes, like the one where Hayes grew up. “My father had a job at Chrysler,” Hayes recalls, “but he had to pay child support, so money was tight. And the financial support he gave to my mom didn’t go far enough.” So, she struggled as she worked to rebuild her life. “My mom earned her G.E.D. and then found a job at South East Head Start, where she earned her Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™.” And this career step led to Hayes’ lifelong involvement in the early childhood education field.

“I was a Head Start child when my mother worked there,” he recalls. “As a young boy, I also went door to door with her recruiting children for the program and passing out flyers for it in the neighborhood.” As time passed, his commitment to Head Start grew as he watched his mom develop and he saw how the program benefited his family. “My experience with South East Head Start led me to get a job there and earn a CDA®, which gave me a sense of pride and the feeling that I was an ECE professional though I only had a high school diploma at the time.”

Hayes’ heart was in education, though his father wanted him to work for Chrysler and his uncle wanted him to go into the army. “Everybody had a different plan for me and my life, but I wanted to grow in the early education field,” Hayes says, and he was determined to avoid some of the pitfalls that led men to fail in the low-income community where he lived. His sense of resolve came from within and from some grim tales he heard as a boy while volunteering with his aunt.

“She worked in a soup kitchen, and I used to go with her to help out,” Hayes recalls. “While I was there, I met some men who were doing community service at the kitchen, and I would listen to their stories. One of them was named Gene, and he would give me $5 to help him mop the floor,” Hayes says. The five bucks are long gone, but the life lessons Hayes received from Gene have never left him.

“Gene was caught doing drugs at a young age and did 12 years in prison,” Hayes says. “He even was shot at a few times, and hearing his story helped guide my later decisions as a young man. I didn’t want to go to prison. I did not want to mess up my life, like Gene had. And though what he did was bad, hearing about it helped mold my life in a positive way.”

It also inspired Hayes to support men in his community by leading a support group called Men in Motion. “We deal with mental health, legal and parenting issues that make it hard for men to be engaged in their children’s lives,” he says. “Some of the men we talk to haven’t seen their kids in years because they owe child support or because the mom refuses to let them see the child. Others simply aren’t financially stable and don’t feel like they can do enough for their children. So, we assure them that the time you invest in a child matters more than the money you spend on them.”

Hayes also creates a father-friendly space for men at FOCUS: Hope. “We have books about fathers in the classroom,” he says. “We have pictures of fathers and kids on the wall. We have special activities for dads. And, most important, we have a large number of men working in the program, from male teachers to male family service workers. And the more men we get involved, the more other men feel comfortable at Focus: HOPE.”

It is strange to be the only male teacher in a program, like Hayes was when he began his career at South East Head Start. “The children used to call me Mrs. Hayes because they weren’t used to having a man in the classroom,” he wryly recalls. And the center wasn’t prepared for male staff since the smocks they expected teachers to wear were covered with flowers. That wasn’t Hayes’ style, so he bought himself a lab coat, like the ones that physicians wear. “When the children saw me in it,” he laughs, “they began calling me Dr. Hayes,” and it’s a title to which he’ll soon have a rightful claim. Hayes is now working on his Ph.D. and hopes the degree will open more doors for him to serve the community and its children.

Hayes also gives the dads more hope by providing them with jobs and the chance to earn their CDA, like he did at the beginning of his career. And the men who work at Focus: HOPE have another thing in common with Hayes: a connection to Head Start. “About 85 percent of our assistant teachers attended a Head Start program or were Head Start parents like DJ, a young man who had just become a father.

When Hayes met him, DJ was estranged from his wife, who wouldn’t let him have joint custody of his daughter since he owed child support. “He volunteered to work in our program,” Hayes says, “and we brought him in as a custodian at first, but as he engaged with the children, his ambitions grew. So, we gave him the chance to earn a CDA. Now he’s an assistant teacher and plans to go on and earn his bachelor’s degree.”

Even better, he now has joint custody of his daughter, thanks to Hayes’ support. “DJ joined my Men in Motion group,” he says, “and we showed him how to navigate the child support system to get his rights. The salary he receives from Focus: HOPE also allows him to pay his child support.” And, like DJ, many men in south east Detroit who long to reconnect with their kids also come to Hayes. “I advise and support a lot of dads,” he says, “who have been in prison and help them transition back into their children’s lives.”

People in the community look up to him for all he’s done. And Hayes certainly has gone far, even making the news as an advocate for men in ECE. But he still considers the men he serves to be his brothers, and he also serves them as a member of Phi Beta Sigma, a fraternity founded at Howard University in Washington, DC. “Our focus is on supporting the community by supporting men,” he says. “We do community service, book drives and food drives. We provide scholarships and focus on men’s issues to ensure our brothers are successful.” And helping the men succeed helps the community succeed, Hayes points out. When men have more stable lives, they can give women more support, be better fathers to their children and be better mentors to their younger peers.

Hayes knows the importance of mentorship, and he attributes his own success to colleagues who pushed him to be his best when he began his career at South East Head Start. He’s also grateful to people like Gene, the ex-convict who shared his life story in that soup kitchen long ago. “We need frank conversations like that,” Hayes says “because ‘iron sharpens iron,’ as the Bible says. “One person sharpens another.”

And people can be educated in all kinds of ways, Hayes says. “Even if people are doing the wrong things, they can still educate youth on what not to do. You learn from hearing about both the good and the bad. We really sharpen each other’s skills by exchanging knowledge, so I keep on listening when the community tells me what it needs,” Hayes says. And he’s especially keen on giving men opportunities and meeting them where they are. “I know the issues they face because I grew up with them,” he explains. Now he wants to keep making a difference for the community that he loves and has always called home. “I feel safe, wanted and supported here,” he says. And in return, he gives the community hope, by focusing on the needs of its boys and men.


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