Biologically speaking, every person has a father. However, as families gather for picnics and fishing trips this weekend in celebration of Father's Day, statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that one out of every three American children might not be celebrating in the conventional way. The Census Bureau and the National Fatherhood Initiative estimate that one-third of children are growing up in a home with an absentee father.
David Cozart, director of the Fayette County Fatherhood Initiative, said the implications of that statistic are much greater than most would presume.
"It's been on my heart for about the past 10 years or so that fatherhood is the root issue of so many of the social problems we deal with today," he said.
Cozart took the helm at the Fatherhood Initiative in the winter of 2010, when it was created as a branch of the Lexington Leadership Foundation. But he has worked professionally on fatherhood issues for the past decade.
Statistics show that a variety of problems, including childhood obesity, unwanted teen pregnancy and domestic violence, increase in homes with disengaged fathers, Cozart said. The Fatherhood Initiative attempts to address some of those problems by investing in fathers.
"We want to restore, equip and deploy fathers back into the family and community," he said.
A father of three, Cozart has learned firsthand many of the lessons that he teaches men who come to the initiative's programs.
"It's a ministry to me, absolutely," he said. "I learn things each time we execute one of our programs. Some of the things I'm working with the men on, I'm working on in my own household."
The programs are broken down into three main components: "24-7 Dad" classes about parenting; "10 Great Dates" classes, focused on building strong marriages; and in-depth mentoring, provided by the organization's two staff caseworkers.
Fathers who want to be a part of the program go through an application process. Working with a caseworker is always a self-elected step, and Cozart said there has been an overwhelming response.
Andy Locker has taken the "24-7 Dad" class twice and has been on the annual men's retreat.
"I honestly don't know where I'd be at without them," Locker said of his mentors. "They offer so many programs and really try to help you any way that they can. One of my mentors is offering another '24-7 Dad' class soon, and I'm going to go again — it's just that good."
Kwame Caldwell, who also has been involved with the Fatherhood Initiative, agrees.
"The program is really great to get involved in. They've offered me all sorts of advice, especially how to communicate to my two older daughters," Caldwell said. "Our communication has improved a lot."
Cozart has seen similar results with others.
"One gentleman who was in our very first class in 2011 is still with us today," he said. "We've seen him grow, matriculate through drug court, develop a strong relationship with his daughter and gain visitation with her and even increase that visitation."
The Fatherhood Initiative has mentored and supported him during each step in his journey, Cozart said. "What's most exciting to me is that he's starting to explore his personal relationships. ... I'm excited about his zeal to become a better dad."
The barriers to good parenting are, Cozart said, "hard and many." He said absenteeism of fathers is typically a cyclical problem, and there are now second and even third generations of fathers who grew up without their fathers.
He said the problem is particularly pronounced in the black population, and the incarceration rate and systemic challenges might also contribute to the statistics.
Isn't having a strong mother enough?
"I always tip my hat to moms and the amazing women who have stood in the gap in situations where fathers have been missing," Cozart said. "Any good curriculum will pay homage to those mothers."
However, Cozart said, society needs to begin to pay homage to a "paternal instinct" in the same way we recognize a maternal one.
"The truth is, I think dads, for the most part, really want to be involved with their children. Oftentimes it is fear of their own inadequacy that causes them to withdraw."
For dads seeking immediate advice, Cozart said, "be present; do your best. With your children, take an asset-based, not deficit-based, approach. They will remember the good things that you do."
In addition to this Saturday's ninth annual Father's Day celebration, the initiative offers single classes that meet on the third Thursday of each month, and an annual weekend retreat.
"Ultimately we want society on every level to engage with the question 'What about the father?'" Cozart said. "When banks, hospitals, court organizations, schools, businesses and families start to ask that question, we'll see change."
The Fatherhood Initiative receives federal funding through the United States Department of Health and Human Services, but private contributions are accepted into a fund named for Tom Monroe, a longtime local advocate for fathers. To donate, enroll in a class or for more information, go to Lexlf.org/fcfi
IF YOU GO
Ninth Annual Father's Day Celebration
Where: First African Baptist Church and Douglass Park
When: All day Saturday. 9:30 a.m.: prayer breakfast at First African Baptist Church, 456 Price Road. 11 a.m.: awareness march from First African Baptist Church to Douglass Park. Noon-9 p.m.: celebration that includes free health screenings, free T-shirts, a cookout and a benefit softball tournament.
Online: Lexlf.org/fcfi/ or the organization's page on Facebook
Molly Phillips is a free-lance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mollykphillips.