Julian Sparks is in the business of breaking down stereotypes. As co-founder of the Bronx-based nonprofit organization Birth Fathers’ Support Network, the 40-year-old is battling one label in particular: the deadbeat dad.

Sparks admits he once fit that description–“I have spent time behind bars. I had a drug addiction. I’ve made poor choices in my life”–and his relationships with his 12 kids suffered for it. To constantly remind himself of his children, he had the initials of the first ten of their names tattooed on his shoulder: “LTLTMMJNGD,” it reads.

Once Sparks left jail, kicked his crack habit and got his GED, he and the mother of one of this daughters sought custody from the foster care system. It wasn’t easy, but after six months of parenting classes and drug tests, they finally suceeded.

At the parenting class, he met Edward Richardson, who had a similar story. Two years later, the two met again, and decided to create an organization to advocate for men who they believe can be competent caregivers. “There are many men out there who want to be fathers and the law doesn’t let them,” says Richardson.

The Birth Fathers’ Support Network claims that in 80 percent of foster care cases in which a mother loses custody, the agency handling the case fails to even notify the birth father, let alone consider him as a possible guardian.

Their group is less than a year old, but they’ve already managed to serve 300 fathers, Sparks says, providing not just legal advice, but also training in basic parenting skills. They offer 12-week courses in everything from financial counseling to anger management to how to fight drug addiction. Three groups of men have graduated so far and another 15 new fathers join the program each week.

Though the network is still small–the co-founders don’t draw a salary, and Sparks says he has to sell bootleg CDs and DVDs on the street to earn a living–their dreams aren’t, and plans include opening offices in all five boroughs.

Little by little, they’re picking up support. They’re working with the city Administration for Children Services (ACS), which now includes a section on fathers’ rights in its parent handbook. The network, which is running entirely on donations, also recently received a $50,000 award from the Fund for the City of New York.

The Fund’s Iris Morales decided to honor the network because she says it fills a unique niche within the broader movement of improving the child welfare system. “They’re very energetic and they’re very committed,” she says of Sparks and Richardson. “They’ve experienced their own battles with the foster care systems–but they didn’t just walk away. Now, they’re staunch advocates.”