Halbert Sullivan

Sarah Crowder

When Halbert Sullivan recounts a timeline of his life, he names just as many miracles as he does jail stints.

Sullivan is a successful father, grandfather, business owner and CEO. He heads the Fathers' Support Center (FSC), an organization dedicated to helping ‘deadbeat dads’ get back on their feet and support their families. Now in its 16th year, FSC has helped more than 10,000 men become better fathers. The participants receive counseling, social services and help with job placement, as well as classes about conflict resolution, anger management and parenting. They must follow a strict set of rules, but the end result is worth it: The program helps the men receive GEDs, get clean and form healthy relationships with their children. Sixty-five percent of the Center’s graduates find jobs, allowing them to pay child support; and 80 percent have interaction with their children.

Sullivan understands the consequences of having an absent father—he himself didn’t meet his biological father until his mid-50s. He grew up in Memphis, Tenn., with a loving mother and in-and-out step-father. “My mother couldn’t read or write, but we had to go to school,” he says. “If we came home and didn’t have homework, she would go up to the school and tell the teachers, You’d better send my children home with some homework.”

At 14, Sullivan’s family moved to Rochester, N.Y. Not used to the extreme cold and snow, his parents moved to St. Louis a year later, while Sullivan stayed behind to live with his aunt. He excelled in school, getting top honors. During his junior year, he participated in the Upward Bound program, taking half a day of high school classes and half a day of college-level courses at the University of Rochester. He planned to become a doctor.

But life had other things in store for him. Instead of graduating high school, he was arrested for burglary at 17. For the next 20 years, Sullivan remained a fixture in the penitentiary system, serving a couple years here and a few months there for parole violation and drug possession and sales. He spent his time in prison bettering himself, earning his GED; and later, out of prison, acquiring his associates and bachelors. “During that time, I was never, ever wanting to be involved in criminal activity,” he says. “I wanted to do something else. But when you have a felony on your record, it’s difficult to get a job. It was even worse back then than it is now.”

In 1979, Sullivan tried cocaine and was hooked, battling his addiction for the next 14 years. He tried in earnest to turn his life around, and moved to St. Louis to be closer to family. “[My mother instilled in us] good and bad, right and wrong, and I needed to be around her. I was tired,” he says.

Sullivan flip-flopped between Rochester and St. Louis, eventually returning to drugs. His life collapsed. “From 1984 to 1989, I lived in vacant buildings, begged for change, didn’t bathe, didn’t change my clothes,” he says. During another stint behind bars, as he sat in a prison Bible study, he encountered for the first time a poster with the poem Footsteps in the Sand, and was enthralled. That night, a bright light filled his cell.

“It flashed me all the way back to six months before I had been busted. I had been on a terrible drug binge for three or four weeks, walking to the streets, thinking, Why is this happening to me? I was sitting in a cell with this thing in my head and I thought, That’s God. It’s time to change. That’s what I call a miracle.”

He returned to St. Louis and got a job, but he still couldn’t shake his urge to use. In 1993, he went on a cocaine binge that lasted two or three weeks, and woke up on a bench in front of Beaumont High School. He entered a 30-day drug rehab program, and has been clean since.

Sullivan returned to school, getting his master’s in social work from Washington University. He got a job as a school social worker, hoping to prevent youth from making the same mistakes he did. In his research, however, Sullivan realized that the best way to help families was to provide services for “non-custodial, non-resident fathers.” He became the founding director of the Father’s Support Center, growing the organization to serve hundreds of men each year. A true example of redemption and self-transformation, Sullivan imparts his knowledge and experiences on the men he helps.

“I walk the walk. Our curriculum is evidence-based content.”

A father of four and a grandfather of eight, Sullivan is a busy man. He also owns several small businesses, including an auto salvage yard he co-owns with his son. Now in his 60s, he has no plans to slow down.

“There are no bad kids,” Sullivan says. “But there are a lot of bad adults around kids—and that could mean bad parenting, bad community and bad society…What we do here is impact outcomes for children, families and communities.”

More Special Features articles.