By Dwight Hobbes
The FATHER Project, sponsored by Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota, fills a sore need, empowering disadvantaged dads. Particularly, those who’re overwhelmed at the mere prospect of fighting the system to be present in their children’s lives.
Fatherhood, under good conditions — a stable marriage or relationship — is challenging enough. Try it in dysfunction. Outside your child’s home. Not getting along with the mother. Faced with navigating a legal and social services obstacle course known for siding with the mother — all a daunting prospect. The FATHER Project (TFP), a proven ally since its inception in 1999, evens those odds as much as possible.
Services offered start with intensive case management and general support. Community-based parent education program MELD partners with The FATHER Project to provide a curriculum for parenting groups.
Issues of child support are, of course, a chief concern. From paternity establishment to child support payment, TFP offers extensive information and individualized support to help a father understand his situation and, whatever shape things are in, take proactive steps to reduce his disadvantage. There is access to Central Minnesota Legal Services for consultation in family law, including as related to parental visitation, custody and child support.
Employment services range from developing a résumé to short-term training opportunities. There’s the opportunity to obtain a GED and, of course, look at prospects of going to college.
Program Director Guy Bowling reflects on why there’s a need for his project: “It came about as a result of welfare reform. [It was] established as a WorkFirst initiative meant to transition mothers into the workplace. To ensure moms’ incomes were supplemented, [we wanted to ensure] that [men] paid child support.” What wasn’t set to up to benefit men has turned out to be quite beneficial for them.
Michael Russell was in bad shape: jobless, living on the street — and he turned it around. “The FATHER Project allowed me to become a much better father than I would have been. The resources allowed me to obtain and maintain employment, provide support to my children and learn and grow as a person. I established paternity [and] child support for my girls ages six and two, completed parenting classes. Learned to be more resourceful, to improve my interviewing technique, and [I] now have two jobs. I gained transitional housing and now have permanent housing.”
He adds, “I look forward to giving back and helping others become the best they possibly can be as fathers.”
It’s easy to believe one automatically knows how to be father. After all, it’s done on TV and in the movies every day. There are real-life examples, as well, of men readily heading intact households. The image abounds. It doesn’t show, though, that one needn’t be a deadbeat sperm donor to have trouble living up to society’s, or, in fact, one’s own expectations.
Damian Winfield recalls his frustration at not being able to cope with his situation and not having the first idea how to get a grip on things. Winfield was, in short, at wit’s end. “I was angry and didn’t even know why, much less how to fix it. It was stressful. Nothing was clear, the future for my kids. My foundation was unstable.” He reached the point of wondering whether his children weren’t best off without him.
Winfield, who’d never known a role model, clung to a conviction: “My father wasn’t there. I didn’t want the same cycle to happen to my children.”
With little else going for him, he accessed The FATHER Project’s empowering assistance. “They helped me realize I didn’t have to be angry at [my father] the rest of my life,” which cleared his head to work at doing what needed to be done. “I had a lack of knowledge about being a father.”
Visiting Winfield and three of his four children at Elliot Park, it’s clear they adore him and he’s the proverbial papa bear, lovingly protective. No question, they would not have been better off without him. A key piece, he notes, is communication with his children’s mothers: “We [argued] a lot, were spiteful at each other.” He worked on his side of their issues with positive results. All concerned are better off for The FATHER Project’s intervention in an all-too common familial crisis.
As Guy Bowling attests, “The mission is empowering fathers to overcome barriers. For them to become stabilized as individuals, [they needed to learn] there was value in being part of their children’s lives. [They gain] an actual understanding of what it means to be a responsible father. A lot of men have hopes and dreams, wanting the best for their children, but don’t necessarily have the experience or tools.”
More than few face the formidable roadblock, in this economy, of getting and holding down a job and, consequently, fall short of being, to the say the least, ideal bread-winners. “We’re also talking about educational deficiencies, communication problems, [knowing how] to conduct a positive relationship with mothers. What we realized, as a result of creating this program, was that, even though [a] mom needed her income supplemented to take care of herself and her children, [we had to] look at the entire family.”
This entails acknowledging that men suffer debilitating issues. It entails supporting them to successfully take on said issues, deconstructing roadblocks to the resolution of serious problems. Ultimately, The FATHER Project helps males make men of themselves, helps them actively function as quite capable dads.
The FATHER Project is located at 2700 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-724-3539.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to [email protected]