For many years, the Mother-Baby program, run by Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, helped numerous women and their children. But those who ran the effort knew they were missing something crucial fathers.
Chris Clark is glad people noticed.
Clark, 24, is the father of a curly-haired bundle of toddling energy named Chris Wayne, 19 months old. Recently, Clark completed a series of classes aimed at helping dads be better parents through the Father Involvement Initiative, a new cornerstone in the Food Bank's revamped Parent Education Program, which replaced the Mother-Baby effort last January.
It was an eye-opening journey.
Clark was attending Sacramento City College when his girlfriend became pregnant.
He left school, and the two stayed together until the baby was 6 months old. The separation brought arguments, anger and a custody battle during which a mediator advised Clark to attend parenting classes.
In August, Clark began the 13-week series, "Fathers I.N.C.," where he explored many facets of fatherhood. He graduated earlier this fall with new skills and a fresh outlook toward raising his child.
"We were very young, and we didn't plan things out," said Clark, who shares custody with the boy's mother, Jessica Miller. "We had to grow up and get a plan and direction for how we were going to raise our son. He means so much to both of us."
The program was intense and brought Clark face to face with changes he needed to make in his life. Before one class, he got into a fight after drinking at a party. He landed in the hospital with broken ribs. When he got to class that week, he found substance abuse and anger on the agenda.
"I thought 'Wow, this is real,' " he said. "I could barely pick up my own child because my ribs were broken. I realized I could either keep it up and end up in trouble or in jail, or I could make changes."
Clark and Miller had a shared custody schedule but were accomplishing it with hostile handoffs of their son in public places with cameras, such as Home Depot. His classes, meanwhile, were emphasizing the importance of teamwork between parents. He took the message home and started reaching out and communicating more with Miller.
Miller, 22, who lives with her mother, said she appreciates the new approach. The two now plan doctor visits, for example, so that they either go together, or if one can't, at a time that works for the other.
"I have definitely noticed a difference," she said. "We were definitely combative before. He's a lot more willing to work things out."
Clark also lives with his parents. He spent the past year working in voter registration and petitioning drives. He currently is looking for more stable work and hopes to own his own business, possibly a home day care, someday.
Lorena Carranza, program manager for Parent Education, watched with pride as Clark completed the classes. He and other parents at the center also have been helped by other services, such as classes on nutrition, a child-care center on site and a "boutique" where they can "shop" for baby items with credits earned by completing classes.
It is Carranza's dream that the program for fathers will continue to grow.
In particular, she has asked Book of Dreams readers to help provide "Daddy's tool bags" with toiletries, baby supplies and educational materials as an incentive to draw more fathers. In addition, she hopes to purchase the "Nurturing Father's Program" curriculum, which covers such topics as discipline without violence and balancing work and fathering.
So many fathers, she said, want to be involved in their children's lives but face barriers in doing so. Others are involved but following unproductive paths that can hurt children.
As Clark has learned, there are better ways to be a dad.
NEEDED: Educational materials, curriculum and supplies for "Daddy's tool bag."