Fatherly lessons
Local program gives struggling dads a leg up

Jessaca Cassady, Eve Presler, and Erin Maldegen, of Advocacy for La Plata, are seen beneath the sign for their group at their office in Bodo Park on Tuesday morning. Among Advocacy for La Plata’s offerings is a Responsible Fatherhood program. Responsible Fatherhood started in 2005 as a place for La Plata County’s struggling dads to go for help./Photo David Halterman

by Stew Mosberg

The conference table was already set with pizza boxes, soft drinks and packaged cookies when the regular Wednesday night meeting of Advocacy for La Plata’s Responsible Fatherhood got down to business.

Among the men attending the night of July 23, one brought along his 11-month-old son, the others, ranging in age from 18 to their early 40s, sat for the next hour and a half discussing issues, bringing each other up to date on their situations, and working through a few “skills” handouts distributed by staff members.

Pinned to a wall, visible to each of them, was a hand-written poster reminding everyone of the group’s policies: “No threats, no drugs, no foul language, maintain confidentiality, be available for the group, be nonjudgmental and feel you can pass if you don’t want to share.” During the meeting all adhered to the rules.

As with many support groups, the Responsible Fatherhood program is about participants having a network of similar people with whom they can share, seek solace and learn from.

In and around Durango, there are few groups to help men, particularly dads who need advice on being better fathers. Seeking a way to better serve male parents in the community, Jessaca Cassady, Advocacy for La Plata Fatherhood program coordinator, and Eve Presler, the program director, took responsibility for the operation in 2005. Presler immediately recognized one key function as “helping fathers navigate the system,” she recalls. “There was no one place for fathers to go for help.”

Affiliated with and funded by the Women’s Resource Center, the program serves about 35 families in the county in addition to managing the fathers program. Men who come to the course are generally referred by agencies such as the homeless shelter, the Health Department, mental health facilities, the local parole office and substance-abuse programs. The “outcome-based” initiatives managed by the Advocacy incorporate a curriculum that is taught by a certified Responsible Fatherhood trainer in New Mexico, named Nigel Van. Both Presler and Cassady are graduates of that course.

The skill support groups get together one night per week for 16 weeks at the Advocacy for La Plata office in Bodo Park. Presently, there are nine fathers attending, with room for 12. If need be, additional groups can be formed.

The upbeat Presler exhibits great passion and sensitivity when talking about the program and the people she has encountered along the way. Emotionally moved when discussing the fathers she counsels, Presler is far from being a pushover. Many of the program’s participants have done hard time, abused drugs or alcohol, or have been treated unfairly by the “system.” She and Cassady gain their respect by listening, through exhibiting compassion and lending support, and then working with their clients to help solve problems.

Helping them to navigate through the complicated, over-burdened Social Service network, finding them jobs or housing, and even food, are a few of the services the organization provides. The Advocacy can also steer a client through the child-support arrangements they are faced with and make sure they understand their rights.

In the final analysis, it is the men themselves who provide the emotional support and much-needed camaraderie. The weekly meetings give them a place to air grievances, share stories, or swap heart-felt concerns over lost visitation privileges or their impossibly difficult child support payments. Equally important are personal situations with their children and learning how they might solve them.

“We look at our fathers as the experts,” says Presler. They share experiences, exchange phone numbers, and as with other support groups, are there for each other day and night.

Any father is welcome, whether they live with their children or not. There is even a playroom at the office for kids while the dads are at meetings. Events, such as day trips, take place as well, allowing group interaction with other fathers and children and affording them quality time to be together in more than a limited location. In fact, several of the men formed a team named “Super Heroes-Super Dads,” that competed in WRC’s fund-raising “Men Who Grill” event this past June.

While Presler sees her role as “helping them help themselves,” several local merchants offer discounts to the fathers. However, she quickly adds there could be more of that type of support to help financially strapped dads find things to do with their kids.

Fathers interested in joining need not be referred by another agency nor do they have to wait 16 weeks to get into the program. The longest they might have to wait is three weeks, and help is available at any time.

The various learning cycles within the four-month program cover an extraordinary range of material; some that might be expected, but others less so. For instance, a father can learn how to deal with behavior issues, anger management, custodial rights and single parenting; he can get help managing time and money, and even learn healthier eating habits for his children and himself.

Discussing the constant tests faced by these concerned, well-meaning dads, Presler explains how complicated it can get. Many have underpaying jobs, making it all but impossible for them to meet child support, live in a place where they can bring their children, afford transportation and practice being a good father. “There’s a difference,” says Presler, “between being a dead beat, and being dead broke.”

Not too long ago Presler and Cassady brought the program to the Southern Ute Detention Center and found inmates extremely grateful for the opportunity to hear about and learn ways to deal with being an incarcerated dad. They love their kids and very much want to be part of their lives, they also want to know how to best communicate with them while they are away and be able to talk about what they had done to cause there absence.

The benefit to a child in having a solid, loving and caring relationship with his or her father is obvious. Less obvious is the incentive to the dad. In documented instances, reduction in recidivism and successful rehabilitation from substance abuse have been a positive result of the program. The curriculum also teaches better parenting skills, and how to be a true role model, ultimately enhancing the quality and quantity of time between a father and his offspring. The Advocacy’s program aims to give every dad the chance to share in the life of his children, in safe and nurturing ways.

At the end of the meeting, two comments from attendees summed up what the program means to all of them. One sad but hopeful dad said, “I feel like I belong,” while another, who admitted to growing up without having a father around, said the program, “... gives me the tools I never learned to be a good dad.” •



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