As Father's Day approached, a group of dadsgot together in Shawnee Parkto playkickball and catch up. Themen are part of a Kentucky-based program that teaches them how to better communicate with and care for their kids.
James Bush Jr., 42, is analumnusof the 4 Your Child program, which launched about four years ago and is led by University of Louisville professor Armon Perry. Bushbrought a couple of his kids, including his 21-year-old son Tavion Mitchell, to the park.
He and Mitchellplayed somekickball with other folks who showed up for the gatheringthat eveningbefore everyone stopped to snack and chat for a while.
Bush was in the 4 Your Child program's inaugural classand credits the initiative with givingdads like him a space to talk about the challenges they struggle with and hear about better ways of handling those setbacks.
"It's a way of venting and getting knowledge at the same time," he explained.
His son said he's noticed a change in his father since he completed the program a few years ago, noting thatBush is now more up-front if something important isbothering him.
"He's a lot better at communicating," Mitchell said of his father. "I prefer that than just keeping quiet. Nobody's a mind reader, especially not me."
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Perry, an associate professor at U of L's Kent School of Social Work, said the 4 Your Child project is meant to help fathers who want to take amore active role in their children's lives increase their personal capacity to do that.
This isn't a remedial program, Perry stressed.It simply gives men who want to be better fathers some guidance and support.
"We're just stepping in and connecting them with the resources that will allow them to act on their intentions," he said.
Participants receive 28 hours of parenting-related education over seven weeks, during which they attend workshops on topics like co-parenting.
"We're talking positive communication, we're talking empathy, we're talking conflict resolution skills," he said of the topicsthe programtackles. "We equip them with additional information around child development so that they can begin to have a much clearer understanding of what they should expect out of their children at different points in their children's lives."
One of the first things they do is talk to the men about masculinity and help them deconstruct gendered expectations of fatherhood, Perrysaid. Being a dad is about more than just providing financially for your kids, although that's still important to many men.
"In a more contemporary society, we're asking men to not only be providers but (also) we're asking them to be nurturers and caregivers," he said, and many fathers could use some tips on how best to do that.
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Participating fathers also are eligible for up to six months of case management services, whereprofessionals can help them identify their goalsand leverage their personal strengths and available community resources.
The top two goals the men cite most often arespending more time withtheir children and finding more gainful employment, Perry said.
To join the program, fathers must be at least 16 years old and have at least one child they don't live with all the time. It's free to participate.
Bush and other dads who came to Shawnee Park for a mini-Father's Day celebrationespecially credited the program with improvingtheir co-parenting skills.
"This program has done a lot for me as a man and as a father," said Dominique Price, a 38-year-old alumnus of the 4 Your Child initiative.
He has a more regular, structured presence in the lives of his three children now and has a more peaceful (and less stressful) relationship with their mother.They're on the same page in terms of how to parent at this point.
"That was vital," he said.
Detrick Ellery, 31,said he's been learning how to communicate better with his children, among other skills. The 4 Your Child program has beenparticularly helpful to himas a young father, he said, and it'sa big deal to have someone from the program he can call for advice whenever he needs it.
Willie Wright, 60, is also in the middle of the program right now and is already seeing improvements in his approach to parenting.
"It's making me a little bit smarter when I make choices for my younger (9-year-old) son," he said. "I'm an old man raising a young kid, and I don't always see things the way they see things."
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Bush sees the 4 Your Child initiative asa brotherhood because the fathers who go through it end up building relationships with one another, as well as with their children.
"I don't care if you've got a great relationship with your kids, at least check it out," he suggested to men who are considering whether to get involved in the program.
Those bonds with other fathersare something Price also values. He said he hopes tostrengthen the ties between 4 Your Child alumni so they can support one another and remind themselvesof the lessons they've learned.
When 4 Your Child launched in 2015, it was envisioned as a five-year program.
It operates not only in Louisville but also in Morehead, Owensboro and Paducah, providing support and resources to dads across Kentucky.To date, about 900 fathers have participated.
The project has been funded by a federal grant and is set to run through September 2020,but Perry's looking at how it might be able to keep going after that.
"We feel as though we've built something that is important and necessary," he said. "We're trying to build a community of support around our guys."
To learn more about the 4 Your Child program, call 502-709-9323 or check out the organization'sFacebook page.
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Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter:@morganwatkins26. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:courier-journal.com/morganw.