In carpentry, a dovetail joint is one that’s so strong it’s almost impossible to pull apart. Sheldon Smith had a vision of creating similarly strong bonds between young fathers and their children when he founded the Dovetail Project in 2009 after becoming a 21-year-old first-time father himself. Based in Greater Grand Crossing, Dovetail teaches fathers ages 17 to 24 parenting, life, and job skills; financial literacy; and their rights under the law. The goal, says Smith: “help them stay involved, engaged, and encouraged about fatherhood.”
Dovetail was part of the first Community Programs Accelerator core program cohort in 2014. Smith says that spurred Dovetail’s growth into the largest fatherhood initiative in Illinois, with a staff of 14 serving more than 120 young men each year. “The Accelerator helped us examine everything: our curriculum, our financial structure, our governing documents,” he says. “We were doing a good job, but the Accelerator sped up our pace and our process and got us ready to grow.”
The Accelerator also facilitated UChicago connections that are leading to continuing growth. With the help of a nearly $1 million investment from funder Chicago Beyond, Dovetail is working with UChicago Urban Labs on an evaluation to quantify the impact of its work, which in turn will help attract funding to scale up programming.
“The Accelerator did the vetting and strengthening that we needed in order to present ourselves to foundations and funders, who want to feel comfortable and know that you’re solid before they invest in you.”
Smith has big plans: As Dovetail enters its second decade, he wants to work with even younger fathers, engage with policymakers, partner with hospitals, and more.