Dads gather in Wilmington to strengthen 'fathership'
5th Delaware Devoted Dads Summit
Beth Miller, The News Journal 11:28 a.m. EDT October 12, 2014
WILMINGTON – Maybe a man whose father wasn't around to guide and nurture him as a kid understands better than anyone why it matters
Certainly, there were many men at the fifth annual Delaware Devoted Dads Summit in Wilmington Saturday who understood it that way.
There was Wade Jones, who never met his father.
There was James Rodriguez, who was told as a 7-year-old that he would be the man of the house because his father left, and was told the same thing when he was 12 and his father died.
There was Kasai Guthrie, a 16-year-old junior at Glasgow High School, who founded "We Need Our Fathers" because he saw the gap in his own life.
Several hundred people attended the summit Saturday at the Chase Center on Wilmington's riverfront. The two-day event was organized by the Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition.
They went to workshops on relationships, parenting, dealing with trauma, what good fathers are like, and preventing domestic violence.
And they heard from speakers who get it.
Jones, now a professional counselor and working with kids in Sussex County, taught a workshop on rebuilding relationships after traumatic events. Trust, respect, and patience are critical issues.
"If a person has been victimized, traumatized or violated, a piece of them is always preparing for the next time," he said.
Jones said he had no male role models growing up at home.
"There were things I just did not know," he said. "Where I came from, if someone did something to you, you did 'X.' There were things I had to learn about being a responsible man."
Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Arizona-based Fathers & Families Coalition of America, told of his childhood path – a time in the child welfare system, time spent in gangs, and time spent as "the man of the house."
"What boy should be the man of anything?" he asked.
He recalled several things his father told him.
For example: "One day, I'm going to come back into your life." All Rodriguez could think was, "Why not today?"
Another time, he and his father were at Jones Beach in New York. The hot sand burned 2-year-old James' little feet, but his father told him he could handle it. Instead, his father carried the family dog, Angel.
"Who cries for the little boy inside of me?" he said.
Guthrie took it all in – learning things he will need as a dad.
"There are a lot of devoted dads here," he said. "They've been teaching me, even though they probably don't even know it. I've been watching them – how they talk, how they carry themselves. They've been showing me how to be a devoted dad."
With his 3-year-old daughter, Talina, sleeping in his arms, Jonathan Wilson Jr. said commitment is a key to being a devoted dad.
"We know 100 percent of children have fathers," said Wilson, who was paralyzed when he was shot by a robber in a Southbridge barber shop in 2011. "There's enough fatherhood not enough fathership. Fathership is the act or duties associated with being a committed father.... This has been a wonderful event to just be in fellowship with other men who have accepted the challenge and obligations of what God has put on our shoulders as men."
Bernard Stewart of Wilmington said he had to be a father figure to two younger brothers – even though his father lived two blocks away.
"Regardless of if you're in the home or not in the home, you've got to make that 100 percent commitment to be that devoted dad," said Stewart, whose son, Noah, will turn 1 in a few days. "To be there regardless of the ups and downs, if they need help or just need someone to tell you 'I love you.'"
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and U.S. Rep. John C. Carney Jr. both attended.
Coons said he used to live near Carney in Wilmington, when Carney was still lieutenant governor. He would see him in the park on Saturday mornings with his sons – throwing footballs, frisbees, baseballs, whatever.
"And I knew the night before he had been out late at some fire hall downstate," Coons said. "When you do the right things, you never know when your children, your spouse or your neighbors are watching. He encouraged me to get up and do the things you ought to do as a father. It's so hard when you're exhausted. But it's the right thing to do."
Many women attended the summit. Some came with their husbands, some brought their sons, some helped to lead workshops and offer their own insights into family dynamics.
"I hope this experience will help young fathers understand the importance of supporting issues of importance to women and girls as well," said Nina DeVoe, who works for the Delaware Commission For Women. "They are fathers of daughters, so domestic violence, pay equity – these issues are also their issues as well. Having them change their lives to prevent domestic violence in their own families will build strong families in the future."
This fifth summit was the first held in Wilmington.
Mary E. Polk, who works for the state and is one of the founders of the group, said there has been a hunger in Delaware to build an understanding of fatherhood and support father-friendly programs.
"We started with seven or 12 people, grew to a membership of about 300," she said. "Now we're in all three counties ... and we're doing things in the community to bring awareness and to educate. People have that gap in their soul when a parent is missing, not only as a child but all through adulthood."
The Rev. David and Bernadette Mills, co-pastors of Through The Word Church in New Castle, both grew up in homes without fathers. Now raising five teens, they want their children to see life a different way.
"Our desire is to model for our children what it looks like to have a two-parent home," Bernadette said.
Those models can be powerful signposts.
"Sometimes in society we think you can't give what you didn't have," David Mills said. "I grew up without a dad, and even though I didn't have one, there were men around in my life, people around, as well as the word of God, the church, showed me what character was, what honor was, what order was."
Such qualities can be learned, practiced, and passed along.
"We want it to be known that fathers throughout the state of Delaware can be fathers for life," said Darrell V. Freeman, training director for the Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition. "Not just start it and end it, not start it and wonder 'What do I do? Where do I go? How do I make this work? You can be a father for life."
Freeman said he and the Rev. Sheldon Nix developed six steps they believe are critical to strong fatherhood – copying (being a great role model), communication (talking and listening), commitment, co-parenting, being close to your child, and coaching your child.
"These six seeds we believe will turn Delaware around."