The statistics for fatherless families are startling. In 1992, 45 percent of American families headed by single women had incomes below the poverty level. Thirty-eight percent of America’s poor are children. The statistics go on and on, but the bottom line is that children from fatherless families are more likely to remain poor, have problems in school, and develop behavioral and emotional problems. They are more likely to be abused as children and become abusers as adults.
The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina spent a year examining the causes and consequences of poverty and concluded that father absence is a major cause of poverty among children. The foundation developed a Fatherhood Initiative with the goal of strengthening relationships between men and their families.
The group sponsored a two-day conference on fathers and families Feb. 27-28 at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
Approximately 250 individuals, representing social service agencies, community organizations, and church outreach ministries all over South Carolina, attended the event.
The purpose of the conference was to raise awareness of the problems caused by uninvolved fathers and to provide attendees with the tools to develop successful fatherhood programs in their own communities. Workshop topics included parenting skills, family relationships, incarceration, unemployment, substance abuse, non-custodial fathers, and barriers fathers face in the legal and social service systems.
A panel discussion, titled “Dads Make a Difference: Voices From the Field,” closed the first day’s events. Vandel Arrington, from Teach My People in Pawleys Island, moderated the panel of five men and one woman who shared how fatherhood programs had changed their lives for the better.
Because both panel members and members of the audience spoke openly about highly personal matters, none are identified by name. Several men were not married to the mothers of their children, and more than one man had been incarcerated.
A common thread of the discussion was how learning to become a better father helped each man become a better person who is now happier with himself. Several men admitted they had no direction in their lives. One man said he had contact with his children but admitted his biggest change was steady employment. “I see I can do more for my kids since I know myself better.”
The lone woman on the panel said of her husband, “I’m seeing serious changes. …He knew where he was trying to go but knew it would be hard getting there.” She added that their children also noticed the difference in their father.
Arrington asked the panel for their suggestions on how to recruit men for fatherhood programs. One man said he signed up for a program after seeing an announcement at his church. A second man told of recruiting somebody over a game of pool. Another man said the best public relations come from men who’ve completed a program.
When the discussion turned to building trust in men new to a fatherhood program, one man emphasized, “If you make a promise, make sure you keep it.”
The spiritual dimension of fatherhood programs was discussed. Several men advised advertising programs in churches and inviting representatives to talk about what is available. Bringing the child’s mother and children into the process, particularly at the spiritual level, was felt to be important by many.
One man told of his organization’s “one man plan.” Each man is required to define his personal goals; the man then “graduates” as he accomplishes them. A member of the audience spoke of the importance of personal goals and how they serve as a road map for men who’ve never had goals before.
The importance of men supporting other men was stressed. Several men agreed how important the camaraderie was, and one man pointed out how much he had learned from other men.
As Arrington closed the discussion, a clean-cut young man from the audience stepped forward to say how important God is for a man trying to change his life. He spoke of being wanted for five major felonies and trying to run away from the consequences. He said God wouldn’t let him. He thought he’d made so many mistakes that his life was over, and he didn’t want to live any more.
Then he said, “No matter what you’re going through, God is there with you —no matter what your situation.”
The young man was arrested and sent to jail. He described jail as “the belly of the whale” but said that being humbled was the first step to turning his life around. He admitted he doesn’t have a lot of material goods now, but he’s happy with himself because he works with God.
Nobody could have planned a more powerful finale.