New fathers now have a safe, welcoming, and judgment-free space to sit, learn, and exchange ideas with peers.
NC Cooperative Extension, a joint partnership between NC State University, NC A&T State University, and various government agencies recently launched a new initiative aimed at supporting fathers in Durham County.
The Nurturing Parenting Program, a collaboration between the Durham County Welcome Baby program and Exchange Family Center, a family outreach and support nonprofit, is a 13-week workshop series that guides fathers through the importance of emotional and social health and gives them skills to foster strong relationships with their family and their community. The first cohort began on September 5.
“The system does really gear toward supporting moms more than dads, so we saw that gap in services,” says Patience Mushipe-Mukelabai, Durham’s Welcome Baby program manager.
Welcome Baby has offered parenting services to Durham families for 36 years but nothing specifically for fathers.
“You come to class and you have nine moms and one dad. The conversation is more on mom’s side,” says Mushipe-Mukelabai.
Program facilitators Alfonso Blanco and Matias Murano are native Spanish speakers with years of experience in parental coaching and family therapy, which Mushipe-Mukelabai says builds common ground with the participants.
“These fathers are having a hard time assimilating. It helps that Alfonso and Matias also come from a different culture so they can relate to what some of the dads are going through,” says Mushipe-Mukelabai.
The initial workshop is being offered in Spanish. Mushipe-Mukelabai says she hopes the Nurturing Parenting Program can receive additional funding in the future to run sessions in Spanish and English.
“Every year, our county department does funding requests,” says Mushipe-Mukelabai.
The team could not secure funding in 2023 for the Nurturing Parenting Program, Mushipe-Mukelabai explains, but decided to move forward anyway. Since Blanco and Murano were already employed by Extension partner organizations, the most expensive budget item, salaries, was covered. The team had enough resources to launch their pilot program.
“Space, we have it. Families that need this, we have them. So you know what? Sorry to add to your load, Alfonso, but we’re doing this,” Mushipe-Mukelabai says with a laugh.
The Hispanic population continues to grow in Durham County, making up about 14 percent of the population as of 2020. The city and county have made efforts to welcome new people through their City/County Immigrant & Refugee Affairs initiative, but folks with uncertain immigration status may be apprehensive to engage with local organizations without building trust.
Welcome Baby sees more than 100 families per week. The program has been able to leverage touch points with families that already exist like Giving Closet, a shop where residents can receive free clothing and baby gear, to recruit fathers to the workshop.
“A lot of times people go where they feel safe and welcome,” says Mushipe-Mukelabai. “We have families who have been using our services child after child. So it’s easy for the dads to come and feel safe, too.”
Loneliness has been an ongoing problem for folks coming out of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating an issue that immigrants in Durham were already facing. Inconsistent work hours and long-distance work trips also make it challenging for fathers in the group to establish habits with their children or build relationships with others in their community.
“One of the things that shocked us was how the male community, specifically Latinos, needs social interaction,” says Blanco. “They come from a different country, they work day and night, and they don’t have anyone who can relate. They have the weight of the family on their shoulders.”
That weight can feel even heavier for fathers who did not have male role models of their own growing up. Murano, a parenting coach and family therapist with Exchange Family Center, says folks in the program are motivated to avoid repeating patterns they experienced in their own families.
“They grew up with only moms or grandmas,” says Murano. “It’s a pattern they are trying to change because they’re worried about their kids. That’s one of the biggest reasons they are in the course.”
Blanco and Murano agree that a successful program means getting folks to come back week after week.
“This program is exceeding my expectations,” says Murano. “We don’t know if someone is going to come because of their situation. Every session is like a relief when we finish.”
After the pilot program concludes on December 5, the facilitators plan to continue meeting with the first cohort on a semi-regular basis to maintain those relationships as they bring in new fathers and caregivers to the program.
“We hope that when this first cohort graduates, they will continue to come back and get emotional and social support,” says Mushipe-Mukelabai. “That way they know the help didn’t stop.”
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