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Stamford program helps men be better fathers

STAMFORD, Conn. — Raising two young daughters can be difficult for any father, but James Clark has been getting support and advice from a new program.

Each Wednesday night, Clark and seven other fathers gather in a tiny classroom at the St. Joseph Parenting Center to discuss everything from rearing children on their own to dealing with exes. As the 12-week course recently came to a close, instructor Timothy Welch asked the men what’s different about them now than before the program.

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‘‘I learned I needed to work on my co-parenting,’’ Clark said. ‘‘Coming together to agree on things.’’

Clark and his classmates are part of the DADS — Dads Are the Difference — Program, sponsored by the parenting center and the Department of Children and Families. The pilot started in Norwich and has now expanded to a second program in Stamford.

Elaine Grant, director of development at the parenting center, said they began offering the class in March at the request of DCF. She said the program’s goal is to educate some of the community’s neediest members in an effort to prevent child abuse or neglect.

Grant says research shows that children with fathers who are an active part of their lives benefit immensely from the relationship. The class is offered free of charge.

‘‘The curriculum is designed toward fathers,’’ said Douglas Howard, a fatherhood systems coordinator with DCF. He said the criteria for entering the program is that the father was somehow involved with DCF.

On Saturday, Clark took his two children, Hylee, 6, and Semaj, 1, and his wife Dawn, who is 6 months pregnant, to the park behind Springdale Elementary School. He shares custody of Hylee with his ex-girlfriend, an issue that brought him to the program.

‘‘It’s taking a lot of work, a lot of patience, a lot of my time,’’ Clark said. ‘‘We’re still working on it. We had a long, hard break-up. The fact that I remarried didn’t make it any better.’’

Right now, Clark said he’s trying to balance his new family with his ex-girlfriend and maintaining his professional hauling business, ‘‘Young Man with a Truck, Trying to Make a Buck.’’

‘‘That’s hard, it takes a lot of time,’’ he said.

Clark said he’s learned a lot from the group and he’s still not done with it. He said he’ll keep in touch with the staff at the parenting center and DCF, as well as the other dads.

‘‘The fathers all took each other’s numbers, so we can be there for each other,’’ he said.

At the meeting, another father, Kevin Wright, said he realized that even if he’s tired, he has to pay attention to what his children are saying.

‘‘I listen, I just don’t hear anymore,’’ Wright said. ‘‘If you listen, you might get something out of it.’’

Erik Preser, a single dad, told Welch that he hasn’t been communicating well with the mother.

Welch, also a fatherhood systems coordinator with DCF, told him to imagine that he’s the chief executive officer of a company, the mother is the chief financial officer and the child is the product.

‘‘If that’s the most important thing, then it takes a partnership,’’ Welch said.

Patrick Smith, who is raising a 2-year-old daughter by himself, said the DADS Program has also been good for him.

‘‘This place has given me more confidence as a single parent,’’ he said.

Before taking the class, Smith said he only knew one other single father. He said he recently moved back home with his parents and wasn’t communicating with other peers.

Now, Smith said he sees the ‘‘other guys’’ and feels there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

‘‘To me, before this program, DCF were the people who take your kids,’’ Smith said.

Jesse Cardenas said for him, it’s a little more specific. Now, he said he doesn’t bicker with his children’s mother anymore. He also finishes his meal, stays at the table, and talks to his children.

‘‘You have to have patience,’’ he said.

One father, who asked to go by ‘‘A’’ due to an ongoing custody battle, said he’s been raising three children by himself and wonders how he can improve.

‘‘A’’ said he thinks the program is good for anyone, not just people with problems. Even if he’s having a bad day, he tries to tell his children that he’s proud of them.

‘‘Maybe we are the pioneers for this class,’’ the single father said. ‘‘I want people to know you can get better from it.’’

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