Day of the Dad

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"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."

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Harrison Fletcher