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Citizen Fathers discuss positive impact of FATHER Project on their community

Local Citizen Fathers of Minnesota's FATHER Project as well as Citizen Fathers from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area formed a panel of speakers to hold a meeting on Thursday, June 29 at CHI St. Joseph's Health.

The group invited members of the Park Rapids community to share their questions and hear discussion on how the FATHER Project is impacting their communities and the ways they are making a difference.

FATHER Project Lead Guy Bowling was the keynote speaker at the event.

Bowling explained he grew up without a father in an impoverished area of Chicago, raised by his mother who was a strong and loving individual and he and his siblings didn't know they were poor.

"She was there for us. She took care of us and she did the best she could, and I didn't realize the impact of not having my father in my life until I got older and wondered what it meant to become a man," he said.

He added that he himself became a father at the age of 15. "I didn't know anything about responsibility and my first thought was, 'I'm scared to death.' I didn't even want to accept the fact that I was going to be a father."

His son's maternal grandparents wanted their daughter to give the child up for adoption. But, Bowling's mother intervened by preventing the adoption and took on full custody of Bowling's son.

"She showed me how to be an adult. She showed me how to be a man and, more importantly, she showed me how to be a father," he said. "I took care of him from the age of 16. I moved out at 17 and I was a single dad and I took care of him until he turned 18 and went off to college. Me and him we grew up together."

Bowling added that with the support of his mother he was able to take on the challenges of being a single dad and now his son is a college graduate and happily married with two kids of his own.

"Kids bring stress into your life and you have to have help. You have to have support, resources, stability and you have to have basic necessities and so the FATHER Project came out of my personal experiences," Bowling said. "I knew there weren't resources around available for me, other than what my mother and family members did."

Knowing that fathers needed a multitude of resources, Bowling helped found the FATHER Project Minnesota in 1999 in order to provide those resources and help fathers support their families in multiple ways.

"Kids need their families. In order for kids to be happy and healthy they need their families to be stable. They need that in order to grow up and be productive and happy and healthy and safe," he said.

The FATHER Project's main office is located in Minneapolis with additional offices in Rochester, St. Cloud, St. Paul and Park Rapids. They offer case management and community-based parental education programs.

The offices offer help solving issues with paternity establishment and provide access to Central Minnesota Legal Services for consultation in family law, related to parental visitation, custody and child support.

They also offer employment services, which range from developing a résumé to short-term training opportunities and they provide opportunities for individuals to obtain a GED or explore the option of going to college.

The FATHER Project is for dads who are motivated to get themselves stable and learn to support their families both financially and emotionally. The Citizen Father progam is a leadership initiative within the FATHER Project for the men who decided not only did they want to make their own situations better but they wanted to give back to their community as well.

Joe Johnson, coordinator for the Park Rapids branch, asked the group of eight Citizen Fathers, "What are you and your organization doing to promote fatherhood and impact families and children?"

Matt Zimmerman, a Citizen Father in Becker County, explained that they organize parent groups that help guys understand their rights as parents.

"I have a friend, when he went for his custody hearing the judge in front of the court said, 'The calves go with the cow not the bull.' He said that in court. That's huge. How many other judges think that?" he said, adding that, as an organization, they are trying to change the opinion that the children have to go with their mothers.

"We need both parents, but it shouldn't just be assumed that the mom is the better parent. That's one of the things we're trying to change," he added.

Johnson also asked, "What are some of the issues that you feel fathers are facing today in your community?"

Jamie Roth, a Citizen Father in Park Rapids, explained that he is raising a multicultural, blended family consisting of 11 children.

"The Park Rapids area and surrounding counties are actually becoming very culturally diverse. There are not a lot of resources that deal with this aspect of being a father. I can get more information as a white father in our area than a Native American or an African American," he said. "As a community, we need to grow to help these fathers, as well as all fathers. I think Park Rapids is moving in the right direction, but they have to realize that there are a lot of single fathers in this community, not just single mothers. We need the help of the community to get to where we need to be."

Kristen Parlow with the FATHER Project asked the Citizen Fathers, "What are some things organizations can do to help fathers feel welcome?"

Several of the fathers agreed that it is important that organizations create a stress-free environment where the fathers can feel welcome. It will help them open up about their situation and seek the help that they may need without the pressure of feeling judged.

As his final question, Johnson asked, "Does engaging fathers in a community and the work that you do create a healthier community?"

Several of the Citizen Fathers explained that the FATHER Project helps dads become healthier individuals that are present in the lives of their children to provide them with the stability they need to forge healthy habits that will stay with them into adulthood.

Local Citizen Father Brian Locke said, "Healthy dads create healthy families, healthy families create strong communities and strong communities can weather any storm."