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Dad Café gives energy to young Kalamazoo fathers

For a society that stereotypes and criticizes fathers for not being involved enough, it doesn't give them a lot of support. A group of Kalamazoo dads is changing that.

Dawon was in a dark place.

Six years ago he wasn’t able to see his young son, locked in a difficult custody battle, unaware of any resources for fathers going through a hard time. Stressed and confused, he didn’t know where to turn.

“All of a sudden, I found these men. I didn’t feel alone,” he said at a recent gathering of fathers and children sharing a meal and playing games, organized by the Fatherhood Network.

“There aren’t many resources out there for fathers,” said Dawon, who asked that his last name not be used.

About 10 dads, many with their young sons in tow, gathered Thursday evening at the Douglass Community Association for a Dad Café, an event the network hosts every first and third Thursday of the month where dads can be open with what they’re going through as parents and men. The events are confidential. What is said in the room, stays in the room.

Over a supper of fried fish, french fries, and dirty rice, the fathers checked in with one another, sharing their ups and downs – what organizers call “roses and thorns.”

There’s the stress of new jobs and the anxieties of having a sick child. They talked about buying new clothes, how COVID had affected their families, and balancing work and fatherhood responsibilities. Some shared what they and their therapist were working through.

“As much as fatherhood is a blessing, it’s also a struggle sometimes. But we gotta do what we gotta do,” said Jacob Mabry-Johnson, his 3-year-old son by his side. “When I’m here, I know I’m not alone. I know I’m around dads who are going through the same thing.”

When the network was born in 2017, no such program existed in Kalamazoo County.

Similar programs are more abundant for women and children, which county care coordinator and Fatherhood Network organizer Derek Miller praised. But there’s a vital demographic that needs the support, feedback, and camaraderie of peers.

“When you’re a dad having a hard time finding a program to help you, that’s a problem,” said Miller.

Dads who feel supported are more likely to be involved in their kids’ lives, research shows, from pregnancy to infancy and the years beyond. Their involvement assists in language development, and provides an environment where kids receive protection from mental health issues and behavioral issues.

The benefits continue through a child’s teenage years, when a father’s involvement is associated with a decrease in high-risk behaviors, lowered teen pregnancy rates, and improved cognitive development.

The Fatherhood Network is an oasis for dads in what amounts to a desert of programming for fathers looking for support. But Miller hopes that as word spreads, the network and its reach will continue to grow.

“We are trying to fill the gap,” he said. “This is a space for dads to just be themselves.”

The Dad Café lets them fill up their metaphorical cups twice a month, a boost of energy when life’s realities can be draining, fuel to keep going for themselves and their family.

Six years on, Dawon drives at least once a week to Metro Detroit to see his now 8-year-old son, attend his football games, and just spend time being a dad. He also has a 2-year-old son in Kalamazoo.

“I would do my best no matter if this [organization] didn’t exist,” he said. “But I’m glad it does. Being with other dads is an outlet for me to share what’s going on in my life. It alleviates some of the stress of being a father.”