“Daaaadddy!!” screamed Lina, a 3 year-old enrolled in our Harlem Early Childhood Education program, after running into the open arms of her dad. Lina’s dad had arrived early to our Fatherhood Connection Kick-off event in the Bronx last week, waiting for his daughter and her mom to arrive after Lina finished the school day. Lina couldn’t wait to see her dad, and was overcome when they reunited after Lina’s full day of lessons preparing her for kindergarten.
We’ve heard the stereotypes about dads, especially dads in disenfranchised communities. They’re accused of being chronically absent, poor role models, and unable to play a loving or nurturing role as parents. The stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth, proven time and time again by the fathers of children in our Early Childhood Education program.
Thousands of our dads go above and beyond to support their infants and toddlers as they build academic foundations for lifelong success. One dad at the Fatherhood Kick-off had gained special permission to rearrange his work schedule, starting his shift instead at 3 a.m., just so he could get off early and be there for his 4-year-old son at the event. Even more of the dads in the program have taken time off of work to volunteer and read to the children as part of our early literacy curriculum. These dads are passionate about playing the best role in their children’s lives, despite the obstacles they face supporting families below the poverty line, and many times juggling the challenges of being new immigrants at the same time.
We can easily dismiss the stereotypes as inaccurate and unfounded, but they have already done real damage to our communities. Because of the assumptions about fathers, there aren’t many public resources available to dads, or designed for their special needs and relationships to their children. Funders and service providers haven’t traditionally invested in developing dads as stronger parents. One of the longest standing and best known programs for low-income parents – the Federal Women Infants and Children (WIC) program – excludes dads by name and by design, even though the program covers children up to age five, long after they’re done breastfeeding, and serves 53 percent of all infants born in the United States. Even if fathers are passionate about stimulating the development of their children, they may not feel comfortable joining programs designed for women, if they exist at all.
“The perception of ‘disengaged fathers’ usually isn’t because of the fathers here. It comes from their environment and the lack of resources,” confirmed John Sloan, our Fatherhood Specialist for the Bronx and Manhattan. “Our dads seek support, but they just see programs that welcome mothers as the only capable caregivers. The lack of programs by fathers and for fathers leaves them isolated. Sheltering Arms is the exception.”
We’re stepping up to transform the social services landscape with a pioneering Fatherhood Initiative – one of the first of its kind for the city – in partnership with leading funders Macquarie Group Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Both have stepped up to help us test and refine the program, even without precedents for initiatives like it, in preparation for scaling it to other Sheltering Arms sites and other organizations across the city.
By creating an inclusive environment for fathers and removing their unique barriers to engaging in their child’s development, our Fatherhood Specialists are maximizing the chances of success for our kids. It’s a unique dual-generation approach to improving children’s social-emotional development and father well-being at the same time.
The program is driven by input from our dads, who have requested parenting guidance, career and academic development, and financial literacy training. Our research-based curriculum, called 24/7 Dad, from the National Fatherhood Initiative, answers the call with workshops on family communication, co-parenting, discipline, men’s health, managing trauma and expressing emotion, and more. Fathers will also have access to a free 24/7 Dad app to use and refer to on an ongoing basis in both English and Spanish.
“We won’t beat generational poverty by working within the accepted status quo. Real, lasting social change means taking risks, pioneering new ventures, partnering with bold funders like Macquarie and Stavros Niarchos. That’s what we’re showing we’re willing to do with the Fatherhood Connection program,” said Elizabeth McCarthy, CEO of Sheltering Arms. “We owe it to our children to give them every single resource available for a better future, and that includes the opportunity to learn and grow with their dads. We can’t do it without these great fathers.”
The new program is already showing signs of success, with enrollment above expectations at sites across the city, and early expansion to new sites with new funding. By testing and perfecting new methods, we’re prepared to scale the optimal Fatherhood Connection program to all of our sites and to nonprofits across the city. As the dads cheered each other during the events award ceremony, it was clear that the energy and efficacy of the program is already spreading. Dads are bringing each other into their new community. With strength in numbers, the stereotypes don’t stand a chance, but their children stand a better chance than ever of breaking cycles of generational poverty for good.