Day of the Dad

Jaime diPaulo doesn't remember much about his dad. They shared the same house, saw each other every day, but when Jaime was a child, his father was practically an apparition. Distant. Unavailable. Unaware.

"The man just wasn't there," he says.

But there's one memory that still burns white hot after all these years. Nine-year-old Jaime was at the family home in Guadalajara, Mexico, when the mailman arrived with a letter requiring a signature. No adult was home, so Jaime scribbled his name.

Later, after another long day at work, Jaime's father came home. He opened the letter, which turned out to be some sort of court summons, and "he beat the shit out of me," Jaime recalls.

The boy made himself a promise: "I'll never be like him."

Eighteen years later, Jaime diPaulo found himself at Kmart, trying to buy new shoes for his three sons. After scanning row upon row of sneakers, he realized that he didn't know the boys' sizes. In fact, he didn't know much of anything about them, not even their birthdays. He'd become so consumed with himself and his job that he couldn't even buy clothes for his kids.

DiPaulo had become his dad.

The statistics speak for themselves.

In the United States, four of every ten first marriages end in divorce. Over 24 million children live without their biological fathers. Children from fatherless homes are five times more likely to commit suicide, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, ten times more likely to abuse drugs, twenty times more likely to have behavioral disorders, twenty times more likely to wind up in prison, and 32 times more likely to run away from home. Boys from fatherless homes commit more crimes. Girls from fatherless homes have more teenage pregnancies.

Colorado's numbers are no improvement on the national statistics. The state's divorce rate is 10 percent higher than the national average; nearly 20 percent of the state's children live in fatherless homes; almost half of the single-mother households are never visited by a father; and nearly one-third of all single-parent families live in poverty.

Bottom line: Dads matter.

A father's involvement in a family -- whether he's married to or divorced from the mother -- can make or break a child's future. When a dad is in the picture, children are less likely to abuse drugs, less prone to depression, and more likely to do better in school and have higher self-esteem and better relationships.

But for years, the big question was how to bring estranged fathers back into the picture.

Under the banner of the National Fatherhood Initiative, government agencies, service providers, social workers and volunteers are answering that question. Using a multitude of programs, courses and workshops, they're changing the very nature of fatherhood.

Denver stands near the front of the movement. Through a network of non-profit agencies and grassroots projects, fathers young and old are getting guidance on everything from potty training to child visitations to stable employment. Over the past ten years, says one family advocate, Denver's fatherhood initiative has become "a well-oiled machine."

Day by day, dads are reconnecting with their families -- and themselves.

DiPaulo was 22 when his first son was born.

He recalls the hospital, the birth and the celebration, but the rest is blurry. He was working, he says. Twelve-hour days, sixteen-hour days, seven days a week.

Diapers, first steps, first words -- he missed them all.

"I wish I could turn back the clock," he says. "I don't remember a thing."

DiPaulo has three sons, and he's the eldest of three boys. His dad was a Kansas-born engineer who owned a copper mine in Sonora, Mexico. His mom was a homemaker from Guadalajara. His dad was a ghost who floated through his childhood, coming home after work, zoning out in front of the TV, barking commands, administering punishment.

"My mom used to prepare us a couple of hours before he came home," diPaulo recalls. "He'd arrive all happy, and then all this stuff would get dumped on him and he'd become this bad dude. He was king of the house. He came home and gave orders. He wasn't exactly a mean guy. He just wasn't there emotionally."

When diPaulo was ten, his parents divorced. When he was fourteen, he ran away to become a tuna fisherman in Mazatlán. He returned home a year later, only to be shipped off to Denver's Central Catholic High School to straighten himself out. Which he did, at least to some degree.

DiPaulo graduated in 1982 and returned to Guadalajara. Several years later, he met a girl, fell in love, got her pregnant and got married. Following the birth of their son, Jaime Jr., in 1988, the young family moved to Denver. Two more boys, Ernesto and Marco, followed over the next three years. DiPaulo rolled up his sleeves and did what he thought he should do: provide his wife and children with a nice home in Capitol Hill, a nice car and a nice middle-class life.