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Holyoke – Enlace de Familia staff celebrate during the Nurturing Fathers Program completion ceremony.(Submitted photo)
HOLYOKE — When Victor Andino walked into the Nurturing Fathers Program in Holyoke several months ago, he had a chip on his shoulder.
“I have been a father for 19 years. I didn’t think there was anything they could teach me,” said Andino, who was referred to the program like many men who participate. “But this program has really changed my life and the way that I will communicate with my children. I realized I had a lot to learn.”
Whether it’s a pre-release program through the prison system, referrals from the Department of Children and Families or the Center for Human Development or voluntary walk-ins, Enlace de Familias staff who run the program will take any father who is willing to learn.
The group recently celebrated a completion ceremony for the latest fathers to participate in the program, which runs in 15-week cycles several times throughout the year.
When Enlace’s executive director Betty Medina Lichtenstein first heard about the Nurturing Fathers Program over a decade ago, she knew Western Massachusetts had to become part of the solution and offer the program.
Medina Lichtenstein knows the harsh truth about what happens to many families when there is no father present.
According to data provided by Medina Lichtenstein:
63 percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes
90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes
71 percent of all high school dropouts are from fatherless homes
80 percent of all youths in prison grew up in fatherless homes
“There are a lot of services to help young, single mothers, but not so many for fathers,” Medina Lichtenstein said. “I knew that if we could get these fathers to come through the program, we would be making a difference not only for them but for their families, their children and ultimately our community.”
Enlace has a trained team of professionals including Roy J. Lichtenstein, who serves as the master trainer and program coordinator, and program facilitators Efrain Santana, Freddy De Jesus and Carmelo Solivan. They work with the fathers on parenting skills, teaching them about how to discipline their children but also how to be caring and engaged parents.
All of the fathers took a moment to speak about the kind of father they want to be. Some spoke from their hearts, others wrote down detailed notes, others only said a few words. Opening up and communicating is not easy for many of them, said Lichtenstein, who has worked with many fathers in the program.
“The program always provided the most encouraging messages, and I can’t stress how much we need this program in our community.” — Richard Kilpatrick
“I am always so proud of them because when they first come to us a lot of them don’t want to share or participate, but that’s not how we do things. We need all of the fathers to feel comfortable expressing themselves, their concerns and their fears with us because that’s how they develop the skills to be better parents,” he said.
Javier Melero is a 19-year-old father of a 1-year-old son. He said he hopes to be the best father he can. “I want to do the best for my children, give them love and affection, protect them and love them with all of my heart,” he said.
Jeff Pelky said he hopes to be a better father than his dad was to him. “I will always be there for my kids and put their needs before everything else. I will be the kind of father that never gives up on his family,” he said.
Mark Chevalier said he hopes to be his son’s father and friend. “Unfortunately, being a father does not come with an instruction manual. I have made my mistakes, but I want to be the kind of father that maintains my sense of humor with my son but will still set boundaries when needed. My son is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I want to be the best role model for him,” he said.
Richard Kilpatrick was another of the older fathers in the program. “I’m 46 years old and I’m a grandfather with two adult children, so I’m thinking coming in, ‘What can I be taught?’ I’m from a big family with a lot of traditions. What I got was what I was overlooking all the time: You have your children, but that doesn’t mean that you are a good father.
“You have to nurture that relationship. The program always provided the most encouraging messages, and I can’t stress how much we need this program in our community,” he said tearing up. “See they set me up, they left me for last because they know I’m sensitive.”
The event included a presentation with awards given to Jay Breines, the chief executive officer of Holyoke Health Center, and State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke.
Breines received the Community Champion Award, given to a person who exemplifies community leadership through their actions, and Vega received the Community Alliance Award, given to a person whose overall work, leadership and dedication shape the character and vibrancy of communities in Western Massachusetts.
Vega said growing up he had a strained relationship with his father, Carlos Vega, a well-respected social activist who fought for Latino rights until his death four years ago.
“A lot of people talk about my dad, he was very good to the community, but he wasn’t a perfect dad either. There were times early on in my younger life when he wasn’t around,” he said. “We were able to make up for that in later life, and before he passed we had a great relationship … congratulations to all of the fathers.”
The event also included a celebration for those who completed the Managing and Parenting Program geared toward couples, married or unmarried, to help them improve their parenting skills.
The program is a partnership between the City of Holyoke and the Community Block Grant, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, Greater Holyoke Coordinated Family and Community Engagement and others.