César Ortega, 21, with his son 3-year-old son David.César Ortega
The Ortega family in front of the North County Vista Lifeline Center.
César Ortega finally feels like the kind of father he believes his young son deserves.
"I didn’t feel like a father," Ortega, 21, said of his son's first three years of his life. "Now...I get to spend time with my son and I get to call myself a dad."
The Mexican-American, who lives in Vista, California, with his girlfriend and 3-year-old son, David, graduated from the “Better Dads, Better Kids” program at the North County Vista Lifeline Center on Monday.
The free eight-week program offers a largely Latino population of young dads, ages 13 to 26, the chance to gain the necessary support and skills needed for empowering young people to becoming good fathers.
For Ortega, being a young parent without the guidance of his own father, who walked out on him and his mother, has been very difficult.
"Before I even had my son I was hanging around with gangsters, meth, coke, weed, and I wasn’t really doing good," he explains. "If I was still on that path I'd be locked up or probably dead."
Ortega learned healthy discipline techniques, how to set boundaries, and even methods to managing his “bad temper.”
“They even showed me what the best foods were to eat with David,” Ortega said.
Patricia Dunatte, the program supervisor, believes young dads are lacking a voice, services and overall support. Dunatte and her colleagues have learned that many times societal and family pressures cast shame on this population.
"We have a growing number of Latino dads that want to be involved in their children's lives and want to acquire the tools to be the best parent they can be," she said. "They feel strong and passionate about their role as fathers and they don't want to repeat the patterns of their own father's mistakes."
It was Ortega's own father's mistakes that provide motivation to be better for David.
"For me to stay with my son and be different and make better choices and give him an education is what's most important." he explained.
These are bittersweet days for Ortega and his family. On the day after he graduated from the program, he was laid off from his job in the shipping department of a golf company. Having never completed high school, he now hopes he can find more work to support David.
Regardless, Ortega knows that he is now more ready than ever to give the best he's got at the most important job in the world – being Dad.
“When I read books to him at night,” he said, “that’s a really perfect moment right there."
Now, he finds himself getting lost in the moments he never had himself as a child.
For more information on the "Better Dads, Better Kids" programs and other parenting initiatives click here, or contact the North County Vista Lifeline Center at (760) 726-4900.
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL).
Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.