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The sound of children’s laughter wafts through the open doors of the community room of Boyle Heights City Hall. Some kids are sitting on their fathers’ laps, while others are seated at tables having their hair combed. At other tables, set up like stations, a woman is applying a mixture of salt and oil to the faces of fathers and daughters.
At another station, a father’s patience is being tested while painting his daughter’s nails. In another area, fathers are seen pulling rubber bands from a bag to make ponytails or braids for the young girls.
The D.A.D. Project hosted the event, called the Dad Spa Day, last fall. The D.A.D. Project is a local non-profit organization that provides fathers with opportunities to connect with their children through monthly workshops, trainings and events. While this event focused on bonding while taking part in spa-like activities, many others incorporate science, technology, art and math.
Luis Trujillo, a 33-year-old father of two, has participated in many of the D.A.D. Project events and calls the program “inspiring.” When both parents are present, sometimes fathers take a backseat when it comes to the kids, he says. The workshops help connect the fathers to their children.
“What the program does is it brings awareness to the impact that they have on their child,” says Trujillo, “It’s teaching them through workshops, but also just gives an opportunity to bond.”
Daniel Polanco, 32, one of two executive directors, started the non-profit program with the other, Donald P. Williams III, three years ago, after facilitating father involvement programs for Head Start and Early Head Start and other organizations for nearly eight years.
The program is important to Polanco both because of his own childhood and his experience as a single dad. “Now I’m raising my daughter by myself,” he says, “and the only way that I knew how is being involved, because that’s what I saw from my mom.”
Polanco discovered that there were not a lot of resources or groups for men who were raising children and was inspired to do something about it. “I wanted this father figure growing up, and I didn’t have it, so now I have this opportunity to change that for my child and go that route,” says Polanco.
The D.A.D. Project holds most of its events in low-income neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East Compton. The program primarily focuses on early childhood education and also helps similar groups by providing training and activities. In the past, the project has held meetings at Malabar Street Elementary School. Other programs have included “Music and Literacy”and a “Superhero Literacy Night”meant to encourage parents to read to children and help strengthen their reading comprehension.
Research supports the idea that male and father figures play a role in a child’s development. A 2016 University of Michigan study found that fathers play a large role in children’s language and cognitive development during the toddler years, and that a father’s parenting-related stress can have a harmful effect.
“I think there are benefits to a father-type support groups because it’s important to have people with shared experiences, even though each father is different,” says Remberto Núñez, regional clinic director of Alma Family Services.
Traditionally, a father’s main task has been earning a living, and in low-income communities there are additional challenges, says Núñez. “They often have to work one or two jobs. So they have to be at work, not at home with their kids,” he says. Programs like the D.A.D. project give fathers or father figures an organized place to socialize while being with the children, he says.
In addition to the Dad Spa Day, Trujillo has participated in events hosted at Dodger and Clipper games.Trujillo didn’t grow up with a father but believes it’s important to be involved with his kids, even if it’s just helping with homework or playing with them. “The D.A.D project really brought a voice to a set of people who for the most part don’t have a voice,” says Trujillo.
The program relies on volunteers and community support to help put on its events. Some previous event sponsors include UPS, SoCal Helpful Honda Dealers, FORCEI2, PBS Kids, USC, First 5 La, and many more.
Polanco believes that in order to change the future, you have to start with the father, rather than the child.
“There’s this quote from Frederick Douglass, ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,’” says Polanco. “But with us, we need to repair these broken men, because without the men in [children’s] lives, we’re going to just recreate ongoing cycles.”
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