Just a Dad From Akron founder Kenny Lambert talks parenthood, sobriety and building community in the face of loss

by H.L. Comeriato

Kenny Lambert didn’t always know who he was.

Now, he’s absolutely sure of it.

At his storefront at 937 Kenmore Blvd., Lambert has an open door policy. Behind him, a full-wall mural by 16-year-old Lillian Stover depicts a green alien on the surface of Mars, wearing a shirt stamped with the Just a Dad From Akron logo.

Lambert, 30, is the founder and CEO of Just a Dad From Akron, a clothing brand designed to build safe, supportive community spaces around parenthood, sobriety and positivity. 

Lambert, who was born and raised in Kenmore, spent years in active addiction. Now, three years into recovery, he hopes to inspire other parents to set positive examples — not just for their own kids, but for other parents and young people across the city.

Lambert always knew he’d base the company in the neighborhood, even when friends and acquaintances encouraged him to take his daughter to the suburbs. 

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That never felt right to Lambert. And it didn’t align with the brand’s mission: to uplift and inspire parents to show up for their kids, for themselves and for young people in their communities who might not have the guidance or encouragement they need to thrive.

“The way I looked at it, everyone that I grew up with here, they don’t have that chance to get out,” he says. “So why not [keep the business] right here where the problem is and make the community a better place all around for the people who can’t get out?”

Lambert says the company isn’t just a brand with a slogan attached.

“It’s a movement,” he says. “And that’s what’s so powerful. All these people are like, ‘Well, how can I join? How can I be part of it?’ And it’s like, just show up. Just show up.”

But four years ago, Lambert couldn’t show up for his family, his community or himself in the ways he knew he wanted to. Growing up, he says his parents and grandparents tried to shelter him from drugs and violence — which only became more difficult as he got older.

“Of all the kids I grew up with, I was the only kid that had a dad. My grandparents kind of [helped raise] us because my mom and dad both worked so much,” Lambert says. “My dad, he worked like three jobs. We were poor as hell growing up. He worked nonstop just to make sure we had everything we needed.”

When he was 15, Lambert got his first skateboard, and then fell in with a crowd of older kids who made drinking and using seem cool. Eventually, he began selling drugs himself, then using harder drugs more and more frequently.

“I was drinking like a fifth a day for years, just partying, blackout drunk every day. [My mom] told me, ‘My worst fear ever is the police knocking on the door and asking me to identify your body.’ 

At the time, Lambert dismissed his mom’s worries. But in hindsight, he says her fear strikes an emotional chord.

“There was plenty of times I should’ve been dead,” he says. “And this is the reason that I’m not. Because there’s bigger plans. This company is bigger than I know or can see at this moment — or anybody in the community can see.”

‘That was the sign’

When Lambert’s daughter, Amelia, was born in 2018, he was still grappling with active addiction.

“I was at the hospital and all my friends are calling me like, ‘Congratulations!’ They were like, ‘Can I come see her?’ And I was like, ‘Not unless you bring drugs,’” Lambert says. “I made it about me because I was so [messed] up.”

When his daughter was around 7 months old, her mother asked Lambert to leave the home they shared. “I just remember looking into my daughter’s crib and crying as I was getting kicked out, but no tears were coming out,” Lambert says. “I’m just like, ‘I’m sorry. Daddy’s going to get help.’

After that, Lambert lived out of his car for a month, sleeping on friends’ couches until they kicked him out too.

“I was so miserable,” he says. “I just kept praying: ‘God, give me the courage to kill myself or put me in jail.’ I prayed that for like a week and I ended up in jail. I got arrested for an OVI. That was the sign that I was looking for that [I could] turn my life around.”

In May 2018, Lambert went to treatment and got sober. After that, everything changed.

“It was a whole learning process for the first year of being sober,” he says. “I tell people it was literally like I had to learn how to walk again. I literally had to learn what I like to wear, what I like to eat, what I like to do for fun, what kind of music I like. I had to learn who I was.”

As he found his footing again, Lambert grew more comfortable in his role as a dad. That summer, he took Amelia to carnivals, baseball games and parks, playgrounds and swimming pools all over the city.

Friends told him that seeing him show up for his daughter inspired them to show up for their own children, or made them want to have children of their own someday. At the time, Lambert says he had no idea how powerful that sentiment was or how many parents needed supportive communities to help them along the way.

“I had my daughter literally every day when I first got sober,” Lambert says. “That is literally what built the foundation of Just a Dad From Akron.”

Before he launched the company in March 2020, Lambert spent months creating a business plan that would incorporate safe, positive spaces and events for kids and parents. Since then, Just a Dad From Akron has held dozens of community events, including a Christmas giveaway that helped provide families with hundreds of presents at no cost.

Just a Dad From Akron actively seeks out partnerships with local businesses and has collaborated with young entrepreneurs across the city, like Strangers Club and 4 Bros & A Sis Lemonade, to host community events and giveaways.

 ‘I remember what it was like having nothing’

Now, with three years of sobriety, Lambert says he hopes to save other young people from the pain and heartache he experienced by building a safe and supportive community of parents and families interested in seeing young people thrive, grow and succeed.

In June 2020, just four months after launching the company, Lambert met Sebastian Spencer — a bright, energetic 19-year-old struggling to find peace and purpose. Lambert and Spencer clicked, and Spencer stepped up to help Lambert build and represent the brand.

“He was literally a spitting image of me at 19,” Lambert says. “And I wish I would’ve had somebody or something like this going on when I was a kid that I could’ve gotten involved in, and not went through all the pain and the struggle that I went through.”

On Feb. 21, Spencer died suddenly in an accident, leaving behind his three-month-old son.

On March 6, at Just a Dad From Akron’s grand opening, Lambert honored Spencer with the Dad of the Month award.

Now, he hopes to honor Spencer’s life by chasing the vision in spite of his death, and building a supportive community for his young son to grow up in.

For Lambert, the drive and ambition he saw in Spencer will always remain central to the company’s message: Be who you needed when you were younger. 

Over the last year, Lambert says Just a Dad From Akron has met every goal detailed in his original business plan, including a storefront, which he originally planned to open in 2023. Next, he’s working on a podcast, and considering a community center for young people, where they can go to be involved in a positive, drug-free community.

For now, Lambert just wants people to know that ordinary people can change their own neighborhoods and communities in extraordinary ways.

“I remember what it was like having nothing,” he says. “I remember two years ago, walking up and down [Kenmore] Boulevard, sleeping in my car when I didn’t have one person. I burnt every bridge with everybody.

“I didn’t have one person by my side, and now the company has 10,000 people following it and a whole community behind it. That alone goes to show that [you can] turn your life around, no matter what your past is, what you look like.”

“I’m no different than you,” Lambert adds. “I just found my purpose.”

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