By Joe Southern
Marcus York considers himself to be a pretty good father.
After participating in the 24/7 Dad program sponsored by Catholic Charities in Richmond, he feels he is a much better dad to his three children.
“It gave me some tools that I started implementing, relating to my kids and my wife, also,” he said. “It was very helpful.”
York was invited to the group by a friend. At first he was hesitant to participate because he felt his parenting skills were fine. After one meeting, York could see the benefits of 24/7 Dad and he enjoyed the camaraderie of being with the other fathers.
Michael Ramon, 56, came at it from a much different perspective. His two sons are grown and he has eight grandchildren. He is also a shop teacher at Terry High School and a former volunteer at a local prison.
“I wanted to get to them before they got there (prison),” he said.
As a teacher, Ramon sees first hand the problems with children who do not have a father or a father who is engaged with them at home. He took the first class last fall and now serves as a facilitator for the group.
“I try to give back to some of these parents who don’t know what parenting is all about,” he said.
The 24/7 Dad program is a program of the National Fatherhood Initiative and is implemented by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston at the Mamie George Community Center in Richmond. The program is a free, six-week course that meets every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Men can enter the program at any time. Dinner and childcare are provided with an RSVP.
The program is funded by a state grant through the Department of Family and Protective Services and is administered by three women. Susan Jaroszewski is an administrative assistant in charge of the program, Angelica Barcus is the outreach case manager and Beth Zarate is the executive director of the Mamie George Community Center.
“We are under the umbrella of Catholic Charities but it is not a religious program Barcus said.
The irony of having a program for fathers managed by women is not lost on them. Barcus said she was very apprehensive going into the first class.
“I think they appreciated a woman’s perspective and the opportunity to see through the other gender’s eyes,” she said.
She said there are now two male facilitators and she basically stays in the background and makes limited contributions to the class. Each class has about a dozen men and they become a fairly close-knit group by the end of the six weeks.
Although the program primarily attracts first-time fathers and divorced dads, it is open to anyone from expectant fathers to grandfathers.
“We are also working with involved, educated guys as well,” Barcus said. “We work with all fathers.”
One of the goals of the program is to reduce the absenteeism rate of fathers in the lives of their children. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, the goal of 24/7 Dads is “Empowering fathers to develop bonds with their children that are critical to their children’s emotional, social and physical development.”
The curriculum provided by the National Fatherhood Initiative is divided into 12 sessions that are covered in the six weeks. The first session delves into family history and looks at the examples of fatherhood the participants had growing up. Other topics include handling emotions, health, communication, discipline, getting involved, co-parenting with the mother and balancing work and home.
“We want to make sure children are growing up strong and confident,” Barcus said.
To do that, she said, requires the commitment and involvement of both parents whether they are together or not.
Beth Zarate, the executive director, said there is a growing problem of fatherlessness in the country due to divorce and other factors.
“We now have these dads who never had a dad who are raising children,” she said.
Without an example to draw from, these new fathers are lacking the skills and knowledge that should have been passed to them from their fathers.
“We’re seeing the affects of not having a father who was committed and supportive,” she said.
The results are statistically astounding. An estimated 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children, 85 percent of children with behavior disorders, 85 percent of youths in prison, 75 percent of youths in chemical abuse centers, 71 percent of high school dropouts, 72 percent of adolescent murders, 63 percent of youth suicides and 60 percent of rapists in the United States grew up in homes without fathers.
On the other hand, children with involved fathers are more likely to stay in school and be engaged in extracurricular activities; fare better on cognitive tests; grow up to have an active and positive role in their own families; avoid risky behaviors and bad habits; and have a better self-esteem, self-image and self-confidence.
“I’ve see what works and what doesn’t work,” Barcus said. “Dads have a tremendous impact on their children’s lives.”
Another benefit of the program is its flexibility and mobility. It is arranged so that fathers can join in the middle of the program and be caught up with the help of facilitators. It can also be conducted in different places and geared toward specific audiences. They have a program at the Carol Vance Unit, a nearby prison, working with men in the pre-release facility who are being prepared to re-enter society. Their part is to help the fathers be ready to re-engage, or in some cases engage for the first time, in the lives of their children.
As a teacher and former prison volunteer, Ramon is determined to help young fathers become successful parents.
“They need to stay involved,” he said. “Whether they’re separated or not, they still need to be involved in their kid’s life, even if they didn’t make it in marriage.”
York, who came from a single-parent home, has been successful in marriage and parenting. Participating in the class has elevated his level of success.
“I’ve come to find out that kids today, their way of thinking is different than when I was a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s,” he said.
Knowing that has helped him better related to his children and their peers. He also gives a lot of credit to his wife for her support.
Susan Jaroszewski, the administrative assistant, said support is an important part of the program. She said the fathers bond through the course of the program and encourage one another.
“In the end, when it’s time to go, they don’t want to leave, even after two hours,” she said.