Ultimate goal: To be a father
At 18 months sober, Rich Sheda has cleared his mind, and he knows he wants to be a better father for his two children.
He only sees them a total of four hours each month, but would like to have them stay with him alternating weekends and holidays now that he said he has pieced his life back together.
"That's the ultimate goal for me … just to be able to live with them," Sheda said.
The Father Project, which began at Family Service Rochester in January, teaches fathers such as Sheda, 38, how to improve their parenting and provides legal advice and employment services to help them get back in contact with their children.
It also provides emotional support for the men by "hearing that you're not alone," Sheda said.
Several fathers gathered Thursday night to get legal advice from a family lawyer about their rights as fathers. While telling their stories, one man broke down into tears, and Lon McLagen, 51, offered him a place to stay anytime.
He said the Father Project "put a wind in my sail" to keep fighting to see his 13-year-old daughter.
"It gives you hope again," said McLagan, who drives 120 miles each way to see her.
A fatherlessness 'epidemic'
To counteract a national "epidemic" of fatherless homes, Family Service Rochester partnered with Goodwill/Easter Seals to replicate a program to help fathers economically and emotionally support their biological children.
According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, more than a quarter of all children lived with only one of their biological parents, while half of African-American children did.
With Goodwill/Easter Seals, Family Service Rochester received a $1.7 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, which allowed it to expand The Father Project, a program to empower fathers that began in Minneapolis in 2004.
President Obama encouraged fathers last year to pledge to be present and better fathers, saying that fatherlessness is a growing crisis in America.
Today, Family Service Rochester is sponsoring a free event for fathers and their children with free lunch and activities such as outdoor bowling and making your own kite at Kutzky Park. About 21 fathers have already gone through or are enrolled in the Rochester Father Project, said program coordinator Tierre Webster.
Webster said the "cornerstone" of the project is the weekly classes, which discuss topics like co-parenting, the importance of writing relationships around children and discipline methods. Fathers who complete 12 courses receive a certificate, and those who stick through five courses have access to the other resources the program offers, such as legal advice and employment services. Through the Father Project, it's also possible that fathers could have child support owed to the state forgiven, Webster said.
"It's really looking at that whole picture of how we can help dads be involved in supporting their children," said Brenda Walker, director of development and marketing at Family Service Rochester.
Not 'deadbeat dads'
Most of the fathers in the program right now are unemployed or underemployed, Webster said. They're not "deadbeat dads," he said, but need the "tools" and support to be better fathers, he said.
"We assume many times that if fathers aren't there, they don't want to be there," Webster said. "I don't think that's the case."
Mark Ott, 30, was a stay-at-home dad with his three children for six years prior to his recent divorce. Now, he only sees his kids every other weekend.
He said he used to do things like surprising them at school so they wouldn't have to ride the bus home, going to the park and helping with homework. He said he talks to them on the phone and "they tell me they love me periodically through the day.
"When it's time to go, they tell me they don't want to leave … that they want to spend more time with me, that they want to stay longer," Ott said, breaking down into tears.
"It's not enough time," he said.
Ott was the first father to become involved with the project and meets with Webster weekly outside of class for advice.
"It's been a dream come true to have support like this," he said.