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.

"Dick and Jane," he recalls. "It was like that. Picket fence and everything."

To pay the bills, diPaulo worked as a driver and dispatcher for Zone Cab and as a stocker at King Soopers. When he came home at night, he was too tired to play with his sons. "You have these nice things because of me," he'd tell his boys and brush them aside.

"I thought being a dad meant hard work," diPaulo explains.

After a two-year separation, his wife left for good in 1995, taking their sons and moving to Las Vegas. But one night only four months later, she called diPaulo and told him that his sons would be arriving on the midnight flight.

"All of a sudden," he recalls, "I was a dad."

As a father of three, Robert Brady knew firsthand that dads could have it rough. He'd changed his share of diapers, helped with his share of homework and modified his share of work schedules. But until he started one of Colorado's first fatherhood programs, he didn't realize just how difficult being a dad had become.

In 1993, Brady was fresh from a job in Baltimore, where he'd tried to find work for unemployed youths, when he was hired by Human Services Inc., a Denver-based nonprofit, to establish a counterpart to its motherhood programs.

The first thing Brady did was try to round up dads of all ages to discuss the challenges they faced. It wasn't easy to find participants: Most men are uncomfortable talking about anything, let alone fatherhood. So Brady scoured recreation centers, clubs and Boy Scout gatherings until he had a quorum. He held his first meetings at a refurbished warehouse near Lincoln Park. What he heard there surprised him.

When most people consider the plight of fatherless families, they blame "deadbeat dads" -- men who have the time and money to care for their children but choose not to. Brady, however, discovered that many absentee dads weren't deadbeats at all, but rather "dead broke," he says. They wanted to be better parents but didn't have any support. Divorced dads struggled to see their kids. Low-income dads fought for better jobs. Unmarried dads battled a bureaucracy that was downright hostile. Young dads faced a welfare culture that rewarded one-parent households.

"If dads weren't around, the subsidies increased," Brady says. "That sent a message that moms were better off without dads. All they had to do was wait on the check."

Some agencies focused almost exclusively on collecting child support. While such efforts were crucial, Brady says, they added to the strain placed on dads who were trying to do the right thing, but didn't have the jobs to pay their own bills. Support services also were out of balance. Mothers -- single or married -- had help with parenting, housing, job training, even financial assistance. And rightly so, Brady says. "But there was nothing for fathers," he remembers.

"We give Mom the support she needs to continue on with her life, but with Dad we say, 'Do the right thing and take care of this baby.' But with what?" Brady asks. "Dads have all the same problems that moms do in terms of housing, training, education and resources, but we don't give them the same tools to succeed."

Fathers were also struggling with changing expectations on the home front. The roles that their own fathers and grandfathers had played no longer applied. For starters, fathers often weren't the sole breadwinners for their families: One Colorado study found that one-third of all men between 25 and 34 did not earn enough money to keep a family of four out of poverty. More mothers were working, and that, in turn, put a strain on everything from child care to simple household tasks like washing dishes. When fathers found themselves alone with their children, many weren't equipped to handle it.

"We automatically train girls to be caregivers," Brady says. "From day one, we give them dolls and teddy bears to nurture and look after. And what do we give boys? Tonka trucks, Ninja turtles and GI Joes. We teach boys to be competitive, aggressive and violent. We teach them that it's not okay to show their feelings. These cultures run on automatic. So when men, particularly young men, become dads, a lot of them just don't know what to do."

Recognizing that changes in the family structure were creating new problems for fathers, Dr. James Levine had founded the Fatherhood Project in New York City back in 1981. Two years later, U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder convened congressional hearings on the topic of "Paternal Absence and Fathers' Roles." And in 1994, the National Fatherhood Initiative was established to create "a broad-based movement" to restore fatherhood as a priority. By the mid-'90s, local, state and national fatherhood projects had the backing of both the White House and Capitol Hill. Still, early efforts in Colorado met with some skepticism from people worried that they might siphon funding from mothers' groups and hinder child-support collection efforts. "They did not see what we had to offer," Brady says. "We had to vividly draw a picture for them that the dads mirror the moms, that they lack the same assets and that they need the same assistance. If you empower moms without empowering the dads, you're not helping families. It was not an easy process."

In 1996, then-governor Roy Romer launched the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, convening a task force to develop a blueprint for improving services to fathers. With that in place, resistance softened and cooperation improved. Under the Fatherhood Initiative, projects grew to include not only those organized by federal, state and city agencies, but local non-profit groups. People like Jim Garcia, Romer's senior policy advisor; Arturo Rodriguez, of the Denver Inner City Parish; Robert Conklin, who was with Colorado's child-support enforcement agency; and Kathleen Rodriguez, Conklin's Denver counterpart, joined Brady in developing programs to help fathers with everything from earning a livable wage to negotiating visitation rights to reducing domestic violence. Partners for Fragile Families focused on fathers between the ages of fourteen and 26. Head Start's Family Star and Rocky Mountain SER reached out to dads as part of its child-development programs. An umbrella organization, the Colorado Fatherhood Coalition, was formed to help cover any gaps.

"I never thought we'd have an impact on the bureaucracy and the culture," Brady says, "but we did. In the beginning, there was a perception that dads really didn't want to be involved and that all they wanted to do was make babies. But the truth is, many dads do want to be involved. The desire is there. A lot of them need help."

DiPaulo panicked. When he was married, his wife handled the kids. When he was separated, his mother, who'd moved to Denver, helped out with the boys -- all he knew was working, zoning out, boozing and studying.

But after his wife gave him custody of their sons, he was suddenly a full-time father, face to face with three boys looking to him for comfort, support and guidance. His mother bowed out of babysitting. His oldest son, then seven, lashed out. His youngest, Marco, acted up in school.

When his son's kindergarten teacher said that Marco suffered from attention deficit disorder and needed Ritalin, diPaulo agreed. "I figured she was the expert," he says.

But diPaulo didn't recognize his medicated son, so he began to read about ADD. And the more he read, the more he suspected that the boy had been misdiagnosed. He was right: Marco turned out to be gifted. Kindergarten had bored him.

"Right then, I knew I had to change," diPaulo recalls. "My sons needed me."

Although he'd completed the business degree he'd been working toward, he took a job as an elementary-school family coordinator. He began volunteering to read to his sons' class. He enrolled in parenting courses. He joined community advisory panels. He met other single parents, including one woman who became a strong source of support. He realized that he wasn't alone.

In 1996, diPaulo learned of a pilot program called Los Padres, funded in part by Romer's Fatherhood Initiative. During the fourteen-week course, he discovered things about being a dad that he'd never considered.

He learned to flick off his internal problem-solving switch and listen. He learned that if he held back emotions, they might erupt when one of his sons spilled a glass of milk. He learned that every child has different abilities and that playing a violin is just as important as doing algebra equations. He learned that if children don't feel welcome at home, they'll fill the void with gangs, drugs or sex. And he also learned that he was a role model -- whether he liked it or not.

If he plopped down on the couch and watched TV, his kids would, too. So diPaulo started switching off the tube and picking up a magazine or a book. Even if he didn't read, he'd pretend to. After a while, his sons started picking up books. Now the entire family reads for one hour each evening.

DiPaulo changed other, more intimate behavior patterns. For the longest time, he could never hug his boys. Perhaps it was the distant relationship he'd had with his own father, or maybe it was his own machismo, but he'd always been the type of guy who drove to the school, opened the door and that was that. One day, though, he parked his car and walked into Marco's class. When the boy saw him, he wrapped his arms around his father and squeezed.

Marco had tried that in the past, but diPaulo had always pushed him away. "Boys don't do that," he'd said. But this time, diPaulo reached down and hugged his son.

Every father has a journey, Trinidad Sanchez Jr. believes. As often as not, it begins in the footsteps of his own father.

"We all have our fathers inside of us," he says.

Sanchez is a poet, social worker and, at 59, the father of a nine-year-old stepdaughter. He's also coordinator of the Rocky Mountain SER Head Start fatherhood program, where he helps dads become better parents by becoming involved in their children's education early on.

"The earlier the better," he says.

Sanchez is from Michigan, the ninth of ten children. By the time he was born, his eldest brother had entered the Navy and his father was 45 years old. As a boy, Sanchez often wondered if his dad had "run out of hugs," because Trinidad Sr. never showed him much affection. He was either working twelve-hour days in his pool hall to pay the bills or crafting poems late into the night on a manual typewriter.

His father had emotion in him, Sanchez says. It came out in the poems about the women in his life, holidays and everyday observations. But he waited until Sanchez left home at nineteen before showing such feelings for the boy who shared his name. In a poem titled "To Trino," Sanchez's father wrote:

When you feel lonesome and blue,

Count all the stars in the sky.

It is the times, we think of you

Since the day you said, "Good-Bye."

When you see the moon so bright

Or feel the touch of the breeze,

Ask the moon every night

Or the wind, for our kiss

Don't fear the storm, in the brink

Or the high winds in the night.

It is Papa, who took a drink

And wanted to hug you tight.

Twenty years passed before Sanchez recognized what his father was trying to tell him. By then, Trinidad Sr. had been dead for nearly two decades and his namesake was becoming a poet himself, exploring his life as a Chicano. One night, after he was fired from a social-service job working with inmates and had engaged in a heavy session of boozing, Sanchez reread his dad's poem, particularly the last line: "And wanted to hug you tight."

His father was trying to apologize. To explain. To comfort his son in a way he never had. Inspired, Sanchez wrote his own poem, "For Papa."

"In it," he remembers, "for the first time, I told my dad, 'I love you.'"

Sanchez joined a men's support group and continued his work with young offenders and inmates, particularly in Latino and African-American communities. In workshops and prisons alike, a theme was emerging: Many men, especially incarcerated men, had troubled relationships with their fathers.

Working as a creative-writing teacher in San Antonio, Sanchez encouraged his high school students to write about their dads. One boy scrawled a single sentence, then bolted from the room. Sanchez picked up the paper and read: "God damn mother fucking child molester."

And he thought, "That's the poem."

In the late '90s, Sanchez moved to Denver and took a community-outreach job with Family Star's Montessori and early Head Start program. And there, after working more intensively with parents, he decided to use poetry to help men become better fathers.

At first the men bristled. But once they got going, the words flowed. They cut through layers and broke down barriers, helping "release anger held inside for so long," one wrote. "To open doors that had been closed," offered another.

"A man doesn't have to be afraid to write something to another man," observed a third.

"Today," a participant wrote, "I learned how to use the love word without being ashamed."

The poetry workshops can be painful at times, Sanchez says. But they are also liberating, healing and joyful. Combined with more traditional fatherhood lessons, which Sanchez also administers, the writing helps men connect with their families in a way that he did with his own dad.

"We are taught to love women, but not men," says Sanchez, who's published a book that includes both his own poems and those of his late father. "I hope to show men that it's okay for them to be emotional beings, that sometimes we have to love ourselves before we can love others. This is work of the heart. It all comes from the heart."

Inspired by what he had discovered, Jaime diPaulo began doing volunteer work with Los Padres. Last year he became a program coordinator. Today he leads the fourteen-week course that turned his life around.

"Just going and listening to the guys is great," says diPaulo, a stocky and affable man who favors blue jeans and baseball caps. "Every time I go through it, I learn something new."

What he's reminded of most, though, is that many dads need to talk. Even if they need a push to get started.

A while back, diPaulo got a call from a principal worried about a family of kids who could never make it to class on time. DiPaulo paid a visit to the home and sat across from the father, a construction worker who'd sired eleven children.

In just a few minutes, diPaulo discovered that the man had "a big problem" escorting his children to school. Instead, he drove them to within two blocks of the campus and then dropped them off. "I just don't want to be seen with them," the man said, shrugging.

The next day, diPaulo showed up at the house early and told the man that they were driving the kids to school together. He grumbled and squirmed, but complied.

On the first trip, diPaulo drove the man all the way to the school.

On the next trip, they got out of the car.

On a third trip, they approached the building.

After a series of baby steps, the man not only drove his children to school, he got out and walked into a classroom, where he was given a tour.

"Now he's president of the PTA," diPaulo says. "He's chairman of the collaborative decision-making team. His kids make straight A's. His oldest boy is starting college. He's heavily involved."

Martín Ramirez lays his head on the table and groans. The six young men beside him stretch and yawn and sigh. Trinidad Sanchez Jr. has just asked them to write a poem about their fathers, but he might as well have asked for fifty push-ups.

"Can't do that," someone says. "Naw. Can't do that."

The young men sit in the meeting room of the Florence Crittenton Center in northwest Denver. In the center's Young Fathers Program, they are learning what it takes to become responsible parents. The project, operated by Human Services Inc., started eight years ago as a complement to the center's high school for young mothers. It now includes components within Denver Public Schools that allow young dads to take regular classes as well as fatherhood courses and independent sessions with Crittenton case managers.

The non-profit program is tailored to the particular needs of fathers who are not only confronting the challenges of parenthood, but are still passing through puberty, attending school and sorting out their own identities. And so it mixes life skills, job preparation and decision-making instruction with lessons in basic parenting. The young men, many of them Latino or African-American and almost all poor, learn how to write cover letters, bathe newborns, balance checkbooks, communicate with women, channel aggressive impulses and navigate family court. And if they need it, the center helps them find affordable housing and jobs.

"A lot of these guys are going from boyhood to manhood to fatherhood all in a short period of time," says Matthew Sena, a school-based coordinator. "So we help them to conceptualize what that means. We help empower them financially and emotionally. We help them with whatever challenges they're trying to overcome in being good, responsible, nurturing fathers."

On this morning, Sanchez hopes to offer them something more: a window into their soul. "You've all got fathers inside you," he says. "Tell me what that is."

One young man places a pacifier in the mouth of his four-month-old daughter. Another folds his hands behind his head. A third drains a cup of warm lemonade. Martín shields his paper and begins to write. He's seventeen, the second oldest of four children. He's living in Denver with his older sister while the rest of his family is back in El Paso. He's bright, determined and confident, sporting a buzz cut, two silver earrings and a boxing-gym swagger. Some of the young men were referred to Florence Crittenton by teachers, others by social workers, and a few by their own parents. A couple, Martín included, heard about the program after getting into trouble with the law. But he had no problem with coming to a program for fathers, he says: When his daughter was born four months ago, he was so moved that he "just started crying."

Parenthood is definitely an adjustment, but Martín shrugs off any questions about the pressures of being a young dad. All fathers face challenges. He and his girlfriend are doing fine. He's graduated from high school and has enrolled at the Community College of Denver. He's even thinking about starting his own landscaping business. "When I turn 25," he says, "who knows where I might be?"

He's here for one reason: He doesn't want his daughter to grow up "with issues." He wants her to have the financial stability, emotional support and guidance often missing from his own childhood. The fatherhood program keeps him focused, helps him weigh decisions. "It's getting better every day," he says.

Sanchez, wearing a black beret and suspenders, paces the room. While the young men work, he offers encouragement, personal anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom: "Love is more than passion, more than sex..." He reads from a list of characteristics they've used to describe a man, including "strong," "takes care of business" and "does what he has to do." Then he contrasts that with the list they've used to define fathers: "responsible," "available," "be a role model." He asks them to examine where the words came from, and why.

"Sometimes we become fathers before we become men," Sanchez says. "When we do this, we learn about each other and ourselves."

One young man stares out the window. Another scans the posters hanging in the room: "Six ways to soothe a crying baby," "Recognize red flag warnings," "Pride makes us do things well. Love makes us do things to perfection."

"How do you spell sober?" someone asks.

"Can we grab some pizza?"

Seventeen-year-old Charles Little John composes his rhyme out loud: "Love is a gamble, love is a game. Three hours of pleasure, nine months of pain. When you came to me and said, 'Why have I been born?' I said, 'You wouldn't have been, if the rubber had not torn....'"

Everyone laughs except Martín. He furiously erases a phrase, then continues writing.

Sanchez asks if anyone would like to share his work. After more groans, Little John volunteers to read his completed "Love Is a Gamble." It ends with this: "You think it's fun, like that's what it's all about, but if you don't be there, your kids will hate you without a doubt."

Finally, Martín speaks up. "My poem is called 'Drunk Dad,'" he says. "That's what my dad is, an alcoholic. I never want to be like that." Then he reads:

Inside what I feel is foul.

Feelings I have for you are down.

Determined to be better for my girls and myself.

How I wish you could have been a better man of the house.

Drinkin' your life away, slowly killin' yourself.

Seeing us with pain

Takin' it day by day.

Pray that today is not the day. That god takes you away

In my heart, there are silent cries

That want to be loved and tended to instead of a brew and bitches

Con mucho cariño

My dad knows I love him

He needs to stop and think

He can be a better dad

And he has it in him.

These days, diPaulo considers himself "happily divorced." Although he says he's still adjusting to single fatherhood, he's more patient, more open and more than happy to hug his boys each night. Meanwhile, his sons often do chores without being asked, occasionally volunteer to read to younger classmates, and more or less stay out of trouble.

Every Father's Day, they rise early, rattle the pots and pans, and cook him breakfast.

At work, diPaulo can also see a difference. The fatherhood movement has helped get the word out on both a national and local level: Dads are crucial, and dads need help. Old gender stereotypes must change. And gradually, they will.

"I hear all the time that dads are taking better care of their kids," diPaulo says. "I see it. Dads at school. Dads at grocery stores with their kids. And I always try to acknowledge it. I say, 'Hey, dad. Good work.'"

Robert Brady and Trinidad Sanchez have also seen results.

"We are able to access more men and get them involved," Brady says. "When I started ten years ago, I'd get calls six or seven times a day from fathers who were frustrated because they couldn't see their kids, or were being manipulated by the mom, or were beaten down by the blanket policies of the deadbeat dads. Now dads have more access to their kids, and they're discovering that they have rights."

But things are far from perfect. City, state and federal budget cuts, as well as a drop in non-profit grants and donations, have shaken many fatherhood programs to the core. Human Services Inc., which has graduated 100 young fathers through its program, recently laid off staff and was cut to the bare bones. Los Padres, which serves 200 fathers statewide, had to sell its curriculum to agencies including Rocky Mountain SER Head Start in order to stay afloat.

Despite the budget crunch, the city remains committed to doing what it can, says Sue Cobb, media-relations administrator for Denver Human Services. On June 12, Denver will hold its annual fatherhood fair. Mayor Wellington Webb is expected to proclaim June 14 "Responsible Fathers Day." But goodwill alone won't keep Colorado's fatherhood movement going forward.

"Many of the programs are at risk of being cut or discontinued as a result of funding challenges at every level of government," Cobb says. "That would be really unfortunate, because these programs -- which used to be a bit far-flung, with everyone acting somewhat independently -- have evolved into a wonderful model of partnership that stretches limited funding to provide innovative service and support to families."

More than ever, diPaulo is needed at work -- but he's also needed at home, where quality time is tight. He never reconciled with his own father, who died several years ago, and doesn't want to have similar issues with his own sons. But despite his progress, his mother still lectures him: "When are you going to get married? Those boys need a mother. They need love."

DiPaulo loves his sons. And his sons, who are now fifteen, thirteen and twelve, know it. They know their father is doing his best.

A couple of years ago, Jaime Jr. asked his father a question: "Dad, what's a wet dream?"

When he was thirteen, diPaulo would never have asked his dad such a question. When he wanted to know about sex -- or anything remotely personal -- he went to his friends, his teachers or the streets. Not his dad. But Jaime Jr. had come to him. Not the streets. Him.

"He was saying, 'I trust you,'" diPaulo remembers. "He was saying, 'You're there for me.'

"For a guy like me, that meant the world."

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Harrison Fletcher