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FATHER Project celebrates grad dads

The FATHER Project's first graduating class and staff include, from left, Kristen Partlow, FATHER Project employment representative; Josh Ellis; Ken Evans; Joe Johnson, FATHER Project case manager; Matt Harju; Cleo Hartung, FATHER Project coordinator; Willy Klotz and Randy Snyder. (Submitted photo)

The FATHER Project in Park Rapids celebrated its first graduation Tuesday. Proud dads received graduation certificates bearing three powerful words: World's Best Dad!

A program of St. Joseph's Area Health Services Community Health and Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, the FATHER Project opened it doors in April to fathers and families.

Its mission is to assist fathers in overcoming barriers that prevent them from supporting their children economically and emotionally.

Participation in The FATHER Project has rapidly increased from zero to 36 in less than six months. Growth appears to be the trend with new dads enrolling weekly.

Fathers come to this unique program for many of reasons, but at the core, all share the desire to be great fathers to great kids. The FATHER Project team encourages and supports their efforts.

Randy Snyder, program participant and graduate, is a first-time, single parent.

"The group setting and education have given me the confidence to make parenting choices that I don't have to question," Snyder says. "And we dads learn so much from each others' experiences."

Participation in the FATHER Project is voluntary and provides benefits including parenting skills classes, individual goal setting and planning, life skills classes and employment services. Participants are eligible to receive assistance with life expenses when necessary, such as gas cards, groceries or appropriate employment attire.

If participants are facing a crisis, dedicated FATHER Project staff collaborates to provide any support possible. Case manager Joe Johnson works with agencies including child support, law enforcement and social services to assist participants in meeting their individual goals.

"Although the benefits are many, I have heard dads say that they're hooked on the program even without the perks," Johnson says.

"One of the most important benefits of the FATHER Project is the positive impact this program has on the participants' families," he adds. "I have moms thanking me for the changes they see in these men, as partners or dads. They're taking their new knowledge base and implementing it at home, work and in their social lives. I'm proud of them."

Another graduate, Josh Ellis, was quick to share the impact the FATHER Project has had on him.

"It has basically turned my life around," Ellis says. "I'm feeling really good about myself."

When asked if, now that he's graduated, he will stop participating in the program, Ellis exclaims: "No! I'm going to keep learning and meeting new fathers."

Both Ellis and Snyder strive to become leaders within the FATHER Project, to give back and become mentors to others.

This graduation ceremony marks the first of many to come. Staff and participants are pioneers in Park Rapids and take great pride in their efforts.

"This is huge," said Johnson, who can't contain his passion. "The FATHER Project is improving lives of families. We are changing the world."