Building a stable life without much money or job skills is hard by yourself. Doing it with kids is much, much harder. State governments across the country recognize this fact, and have responded with assistance programs for single and low income parents. But they’re almost always just for moms. Since 2008 Wyoming has been bucking that trend with Dads Making a Difference, a Cheyenne program that teaches dads job skills, and parenting skills too. I visited a class during orientation week.
In the Cottonwood Room at the Laramie County Public Library Dad’s Making a Difference instructor Chuck Skinner has the class trained on a big paper chart. A black line divides it horizontally, and the top half is filled with words like “gratitude,” “create,” and “chose.” Below red letters spell out a different kind of vocabulary: “anger,” “fear,” and “pain.”
“We can call them ‘life shocks,’” Skinner says as he squeaks his marker across the paper. “They are just going to happen.”
Skinner, a psychotherapist, asks one of the dads, a young man named Chris Day, to read his class commitment statement.
“My commitment statement is to be a better person and a higher quality of life. To be a role model for my children...” Day continues on.
Exercises like this are the core of Dads Making a Difference. While 50 percent of the program is spent learning a job skill--this group is getting their trucking licenses--the other half is spent on developing a new set of mental tools.
“Folks will come in with a set way to parent,” Skinner tells me. “Maybe its by definition abusive, or their is anger...fear behind it.”
85 percent of the men who come through the program are felons, or recovering addicts, or both. Skinner says while these lessons may feel a college psych class, they’re a great way to teach these guys how to break of old habits.
“The idea is to notice that I am reactive. I am in a place that has not worked.”
Jeff Blanton is 44. He has two children of his own, and four by marriage.
“I’m what people would consider very strict.”
Blanton’s currently working part time at a restaurant, and he signed up for the class for a better job: he didn’t expect to get much out of the fatherhood front. But he says the stuff he’s learning here speaks to him.
“Like they said, if you portray out that you are angry it's going to be coming back to you all the time. I get angry at one thing and it just carries on through the whole entire day and it doesn’t change.”
I ask it the class may change the relationship he has with his kids---”it could.”
Chris Wiederspahn hopes it can for men like Blanton. She’s the manager of Dads Making a Difference for DWS. She says that, for most state assistance programs, parenthood is the same as motherhood.
“But we are seeing more and more fathers get custody of their kids. Its dads get custody as well..”
Dads Making a Difference is pricey: it costs ten to fifteen thousand dollars to fund a single dad through one of the 2 or three sessions each year. The program is funded entirely with federal money, and Weiderspahn can’t get the funding needed to expand the program outside Cheyenne. But she says that the men who do go through Dads do really well: only two percent commit a serious crime afterwards, and most see their wages increase by 30 to 70 percent.
“You can’t separate being a better dad versus being a better employee and a better citizen, and not going back to prison. They’re connected. It’s all connected.”
For David Simpson, becoming a stepfather was what inspired him to apply for the program. He’s 38, and has spent the last two decades bouncing from town to town and from job to job.
“It was always well either I figure it out or not, I am not going to loom over it,” he says over a homemade sandwich. “Having a daughter now and wife--I have to figure this out.”
Simpson says as a kid he hated homework. Now he loves taking what he learns home.
Simpson’s four year old stepchild Madeline is his motivation, and his homework buddy. When I ask her what her dad could do to be even better she’s ready with an answer--clean the bedroom. In fact, he should do all the chores.
That might have to be a extracurricular activity. David Simpson and his fellow dads are set to graduate in December.