As a child, Schweitzer Fellow and Simmons School of Social Work student Charles Daniels witnessed his mother’s struggles as a single parent. So why is his Schweitzer service project—a weekly initiative based at The Dimock Center—focused on supporting low-income fathers?
Because when Daniels thought about his father, he took an unexpected approach: “I thought about the things he was going through that prevented him from remaining active in my life,” he says. “Then I said to myself, ‘What if someone had been there to help him?’ It might have made a tremendous difference.
That’s exactly the sort of difference Daniels’ Schweitzer project, Fathers’ Uplift, is designed to deliver.
“Data suggests that 80% of single parent-homes are headed by women,” he says. “This means that although many women are remaining in their children’s lives, many fathers are not. If we can identify the problems that are preventing men from being in their children’s lives, we can find ways to help them work through those problems and remain engaged.”
Read on to get to know this extraordinary Schweitzer Fellow—and the fathers he’s working to support.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
The goal of my Schweitzer project, Fathers’ Uplift, is to provide low-income fathers with a place where they can receive support, guidance, and encouragement around fatherhood in a group setting. It doesn’t take a lot of money to be a good father—what matters most is being there.
In my father’s absence, my mentor, Dr. Anthony Owens from Daytona Beach, Florida, dedicated his life to making sure I remained on the right track. His commitment to making sure that the problems I had at home did not outweigh my success changed my life for the best. I remember his words: “Don’t let your negative determine your future—keep pushing.”
I wanted to relay this same message—and this same support and therapeutic relationship-building—to fathers in low income communities. Since embarking on this journey I have received many lessons of survival and success from them. I’ve noticed that many of the men with whom I have worked come from single-parent homes themselves, or homes where their fathers were physically present but emotionally absent. Their resilience is powerful: despite what they have experienced and are experiencing, they continue to be the best fathers they can be.
Before and after every session, I hug each of the fathers to show them that I care. My purpose includes creating an environment for fathers to feel appreciated. As a service agent, I am obligated to share the dedication, commitment, and love my mentor and church family gave to me in hope that these fathers pay if forward and do the same for the children in their lives.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
There are many barriers that pose a challenge in the lives of low-income men who are trying to be fathers to their children—from being released from prison and not being able to get a job to pay child support; to conflict with the spouse that prevents them from having access to the child; to a court system that sometimes appears to favor the mother over the father. I hope that Fathers’ Uplift will deliver lasting impact by empowering both the men I work with and the community at large to recognize the importance of fathers’ role in their childrens’ lives, and by helping to change perceptions.
It seems like there has been a systemic norm at schools and day care centers across the country: whenever there’s a problem, the teacher normally calls the mother first. The devaluation of males as parental figures also takes place in the courts and welfare system. Men are often not acknowledged as caregivers, nurturers and responsible parents.
But what I have found is that fathers want to be engaged in parenting. I recall one father saying to me, “I saw Fathers’ Uplift. I am a father and I want to be uplifted so that I can be a better father for my children.”
I remember vividly another one of the fathers saying to me with tears in his eyes that he felt like people looked down on him because he’s not with his child. “They don’t know my story,” he said.
Before making assumptions about absent fathers and completely casting them all into one category, the following questions should be asked: what is the story behind their situation? Is there a reason behind their experience? How do they as a male in our society view themselves? These questions will enable one to better understand the father as a person rather than as a problem.
It is my hope that Fathers’ Uplift exemplifies this message and leads to the establishment of more supportive services that make fathers feel welcome in society’s various systems. In doing so, we can support fathers in remaining present in their children’s lives.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
The effects of poverty and lack of resources on individuals from underserved communities. Among other things, these factors can negatively affect mental health, resulting in depression, paranoia, and anxiety.
Many of the men I have worked with lacked guidance and support from their fathers when they were children. They are placed in a position where they are unable to provide such guidance to their own child because:
- They have no example to follow re. being active in the lives of their child;
- They may not be in a position to support the child or themselves; and
- They may not be mentally and emotionally healthy enough to endure the stressors of poverty and associated social factors.
The purpose of Fathers’ Uplift is to pinpoint these stressors and talk about them, while strengthening and sustaining the fathers’ presence in their child’s life. We must also work tirelessly to bring to life the confidence they already possess by focusing on their strengths.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
The most surprising element of my experience as a Schweitzer Fellow has been the first time I met Isac Sr. and his 4-year-old son Isac Jr. Ten other gentlemen were present at that day’s Fathers’ Uplift meeting, which started with a typical check-in on how things were going. Everyone shared and was curious about the new duo.
Then, it was Isac Sr.’s turn to introduce himself. He said, “You know, I’m actually from the shelter across the street. I heard about the group and decided to come. My son and I were in the area, so we came on over. I know things may get hard at times. My family and I are currently displaced from our homes and in a shelter. I know that everything will eventually get better. I have to remain strong for my son regardless of how hard things get. I’m glad to be here, though.”
Isac Jr. sat next to his father with a smile on his face. He continued to play with a toy that he had found in the classroom next door. It seemed as if he didn’t have a worry in the world. He was there with his father and that appeared to be good enough for him.
Out of curiosity, I posed a question to Isac Sr. “You know, I’m just curious, Isac, and maybe you can help me out. I mean, you’re here with a smile on your face, and you’re in a shelter across the street. Man, you stand here before us with an encouraging word and smile despite what you’re going through. I admire that about you. What is it that allows you to smile with your son by your side despite these things?”
Isac looked at the group and then looked at his son. Tears began to roll down his face as he tried desperately to hold them back. He took a second to get himself together and hugged his son. Then, he looked at each member of the group and said, “I do it for him. He keeps me moving forward because I have to be here for him to make sure he’s ok. I love him and will do everything I can to make sure he’s all right. I live for him.”
Despite the economic position of his father and the situation they were experiencing, Isac Jr. was still able to smile and hug his father back. Granted, he may have not understood the position they were in—but one thing he did understand (and was happy about) was that daddy was there.
I asked the men in the group what they thought about this moment. In summation, one of the guys said, “We sometimes think that our kids may want money all the time and other things that we may or may not be able to provide. What is most important is our presence in their lives. Regardless of what we may be going through, we have to continue to be present in their lives despite the challenges.” Another father said, “Watching this touched me. I had to hold back my tears. Here he is in a shelter, but he still can stand here today and be strong for his child and family.”
Isac Sr. and Isac Jr. represent the message I work diligently to promote: a father’s presence is beautiful, and the child appreciates it most. Together we can uplift fathers by partnering with them to overcome their struggle. Through encouragement, resources, and support we can strengthen their mental health—and in turn strengthen their children and families.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
October was our first Men’s Appreciation month at The Dimock Center. Honestly, tears rolled down my face as I reflected on the beginning of this initiative to now. When I look at the challenges I encountered at the beginning of the Fathers’ Uplift initiative and how easily discouraged I was at times, I now feel empowered. Nothing is impossible and I have learned from Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s legacy, struggle, and relentless determination that the bigger the boulders, the greater you will be.
Schweitzer said, “Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his [or her] way, but must accept his [or her] lot calmly if they even roll a few more upon it. A strength which becomes clearer and stronger through its experience of such obstacles is the only strength that can conquer them.”
This quote reminded me that there will be conflict when advocating for change. Sometimes it’s easy to expect others to be nice to you when you are a service agent. Even though your expectations of others may not play out exactly as planned, you can’t let it get the best of you.
A Schweitzer Fellow stands for others through challenges and discouraging times. Schweitzer Fellows take the road less traveled for underserved populations so that they, too, can rise above the presenting problems. Being a Schweitzer Fellow means living in the legacy of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and exemplifying commitment, unconditional love, hard work, and dedication.
Charles Daniels is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Daniels it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Daniels’ efforts to support low-income fathers’ engagement in their children’s lives, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.