Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Commitment, perseverance helps family beat odds

Burtonsville couple honored as a model for other African Americans

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
The Parris family, (from left) Diane, Deana, Devin, Dwayne and Donovan of Burtonsville has been recognized by the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Gaithersburg nonprofit dedicated to the importance of marriage.
Dwayne and Diane Parris say they will remember 2004 as the year their marriage survived its most difficult test. With Dwayne working long hours and traveling constantly, the time the couple and their three children spent together was limited, evident by a noticeable gap in their photo albums.

‘‘We have no pictures from 2004,” Diane, 40, said of the peak of Dwayne’s two-and-a-half-year stint as the regional director of a private company. ‘‘It was just such a whirlwind, but you just get through it.”

Rather than accept the disconnect as a routine pitfall of supporting a family, Dwayne, 38, decided spending time with his children was more important than his job, and quit to take a less demanding position.

Four years later, the Burtonsville family has been recognized by the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Gaithersburg-based nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of marriage, and its ‘‘What’s Your Legacy?” campaign. The Parrises, an African-American family, were honored for their commitment, since statistically, blacks do not get married as often or stay married as long as other groups.

‘‘[The Parrises] see their role as modeling what a healthy and happy marriage looks like. Their kids can reproduce that,” said Roland Warren, the president of NFI. ‘‘This was also a couple with realism. [They admitted] that it’s not an easy thing to do.”

According to Warren, African Americans are the least likely group to begin and maintain a successful marriage. A U.S. Census Bureau study in 2001 showed that just 35 percent of black children live with married parents.

The purpose of the ‘‘What’s Your Legacy?” campaign was to identify regular, working-class families that flourish despite economic and cultural factors that discourage marriage within the African-American community, Warren said.

The Parrises applied for the campaign because they wanted to provide an example, both to others and their children, Deana, 12, Donovan, 10, and Devin, 5, that the benefits of marriage are worth the sacrifices.

‘‘I applied to the contest because there is definitely the evidence of a breakdown of family, but it’s country-wide,” Diane said. ‘‘You have nothing that really pushes or promotes family, that being a family is a good thing.”

The couple met as seniors at the University of Maryland in College Park and married in June 1993. They have had struggles. In addition to Dwayne’s decision to leave his demanding job, Diane quit her job at the National Institutes of Health’s AIDS division to be a stay-at-home mother and home-school their oldest daughter.

Also, Diane has lupus, and the occasional flare-ups, the worst of which leave her bedridden for weeks at a time, have put a strain on the family. But both credit their own parents for providing strong models.

Even though Diane’s father was her mother’s third husband, she said her four step-siblings have all either been divorced or are unmarried as a result of not having the model of a stable marriage. Diane said not having to see her parents go through a divorce was an advantage. For Dwayne, his father’s presence in the family, even after three heart attacks and two strokes, was his inspiration in his own marriage.

Lydia Kenlaw, a family friend of 15 years, said the Parrises’ best quality is how they persevere through tough times.

‘‘Those things that would put a strain on a marriage ... didn’t rattle them the way I’ve seen it rattle other people,” she said. ‘‘The kids are always a priority.

The family values instilled in the Parris household have been on the decline nationally, said Darrell Gaskin, the acting chairman of the African-American studies department at the University of Maryland in College Park. Gaskin said the decline in marriage in the black community can be traced back to the 1970s, when the job market for black men began declining, incarceration rates skyrocketed and middle-class black families moved out of urban areas, leaving a void of successful, model families in the inner city.

‘‘It’s very hard to convince young people who have grown up in homes that are not built on a stable marriage that they should wait with regard to sexual decisions,” said Gaskin, who is also a minister in Washington, D.C.

In Montgomery County, data from the 2000 Census shows 49 percent of African Americans age 15 and older are divorced or never married, compared to only 31 percent of whites. Those numbers are close to national averages (52 percent for blacks, 34 percent for whites).

‘‘By and large, [Montgomery County is] fairly wealthy and we find in counties that are wealthy, there are less issues related to father absence and out-of-wedlock marriage,” Warren said. ‘‘But there are key areas for the local community where there is a real issue related to gangs. Gangs are replacements for fathers, and to strengthen fatherhood in the community would reduce the gang issue.”

Jeff Johnson, the director of the Letters from Dad program at the People’s Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring, an initiative which brings fathers together to better express their feelings toward their families through writing letters, said he notices a trend among African-American men to not embrace the commitment of marriage.

‘‘Often, there is no accountability,” he said. ‘‘For example, if a guy is having some problems and thinking about not working it out, there are other women. If there’s someone in my group that’s saying that, I’m getting on the case.”

He said the men in his program are also examples of African Americans embracing family values in spite of a national problem.

For Dwayne and Diane Parris, going against the norm remains their focus. ‘‘Let’s make staying together a trend,” Diane said. ‘‘Let’s be part of that trend.”