It was half a lifetime ago for Sam Berns, but he still remembers. The 30-year-old has a business degree, a career in financial consulting and a firm sense of self. But he clearly recalls the thrashing and gnashing of the middle teen years, when he didn't know where he was going, much less how to get there.
A lot had to do with not having his father around, says Berns, from Ottawa. He promised himself that, if he got through it, he would help other kids in the same situation.
The result is the website WithoutaFather.com, which Berns recently launched for teens wrestling with choices about school, money and careers. The site features a resumé-builder and a tool for creating a budget. It gives users access to online mentors who respond to questions on a message board. There are tips on balancing work and school, healthy habits and relationships.
According to the 2006 census, there are 1.4 million single-parent families in Canada, 80 per cent led by mothers. Berns cites research, including a Harvard University study of 25,000 students in 1994, showing kids in single-parent homes earn lower grades, miss more school and are more likely to drop out.
Berns, currently working full-time on the website and living off his savings, has sought input from teens, educators and a psychologist. A former client donated office space and helped with Web design.
Berns was in Toronto recently speaking to a group of black professionals and a community mentoring organization, hoping to attract a more diverse range of online mentors. He sat down with the Star.
Q: Who raised you?
A: My mom. My parents divorced when I was 12 or 13. Then my father moved away for work and I didn't see him for 15 years. My mom is a schoolteacher, just the most amazing person I know.
Q: What was the impact of being without a father?
A: There are the little things. I didn't know how to tie a tie until my friend showed me, after his dad showed him. On another level, I think it was just having an encouraging voice that was more bold. For a boy, sometimes it's about sports, achievements, finding your way in the world, that confidence. It's hard to explain the sense of abandonment, it's so complex.
Q: Can't a mother provide a lot of the advice on your website?
A: Absolutely. The role of mothers and fathers is so different, depending on your family situation. Sometimes it's a question of needing another pair of hands. The title is more a response to the numbers because so many single-parent families are headed by women. I'm hoping to help all kids – those without a father, without a mother, or even if they have a father present who's emotionally absent.
Q: Where did your idea come from?
I didn't know what to do until I volunteered doing Junior Achievement (a business education program) with high school kids for three years. I could tell (who were) the ones who had grown up without a father. It just kind of clicked that I could create what I did with those kids on the Web.
Q: What's your goal?
A: I hope kids will come on the site, do a resumé and make a budget. I really want them to graduate from high school, work hard and continue their studies and know they can be successful.
Q: What's your next step?
A: Attracting a high-quality diverse group of mentors. I could have asked my friends and they probably would have done it as a favour to me but that's not fair to the kids. The mentors have to want to do it for the kids. I believe in diversity not just culturally and racially but also professionally. If I have a girl in Montreal who wants to know how to become a mechanic, I need a female mechanic who can give her encouragement.
One girl sent a mentor a question about a job interview and was nervous and panicked. A day later the mentor, who's from Florida and does a lot of hiring for Wendy's, wrote back with great advice on things like how to research the company you are applying to.
Another teen sent a message in Lebanese to one of our mentors. This just confirms that importance of attracting as diverse a group as I can.
Q: Isn't it tough to stand out on the Web?
A: It's hard because there are so many competing voices. My message – stay in school, get good grades, do a budget, work hard – is not exactly sizzling. I just hope it connects with them at that moment when they're thinking about their futures and have a lot of questions.
Q: You aren't making money from this venture. What are the rewards?
A: When we put the site up and the first resumé was created, that was the best feeling ever. I got an email from the person and she was from the Bronx, an aspiring vet. Awhile ago, I went to a high school and met with about 14 kids. I gave them an hour online and told them they only had to stay on the website as long as they felt like it and then I stood back. Two checked it out and then went to play computer games but the rest stayed there the whole time.