FATHER Project guides dads to healthier relationships
FATHER stands for “Fostering Actions to Help Earnings and Responsibility.” Founded in 1999 by the city of Minneapolis, the FATHER Project became a program of Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota in 2004. The program’s mission is to help fathers learn healthy parenting skills and behaviors as well as overcome barriers that have prevented them from providing emotional and financial support for their children.
PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Joey Callahan was and is determined not to let his daughter down.
Callahan's own parents divorced when he was 5 years old. “I was too young. I didn’t understand, and I kinda thought everything was my fault,” Callahan, 38, recalled.
His mother remarried, and they moved often. Callahan attended nine different schools between the ages of 7 to 15. “My stepdad was a drug addict, alcoholic. Very abusive verbally and physically. I watched my mom get beat up on a regular basis,” he said.
As he grew up in that environment, Callahan told himself he didn’t want to treat his wife or children like that.
“Well, I grew up to be that exact person I did not want to be,” he said.
Callahan became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Up until the age of 32, he struggled with staying sober; the mother of his child was addicted to pills.
When the mother was charged with felony-level crimes, Callahan filed a child protective services report with Becker County, “which I had been scared to do because I felt like nobody would listen to me.”
His daughter was a toddler at the time, almost 3 years old. The custody battle took 19 months.
“It was not an easy row to hoe. It was tough, very tough. Without the help of Joe, I promise you I would not have made it through it,” he said. “It was so much weight, I could not carry it all by myself.”
Joe is Joe Johnson, coordinator of the CHI St. Joseph’s Community Health FATHER Project in Park Rapids, Minnesota.
FATHER stands for “Fostering Actions to Help Earnings and Responsibility.” Founded in 1999 by the city of Minneapolis, the FATHER Project became a program of Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota in 2004, according to its website. Since then, the FATHER Project has expanded throughout the state, including in Park Rapids in 2011.
The program’s mission is to help fathers — custodial or non-custodial, or anyone filling in as a father figure (stepdads, grandparents, foster parents) — learn healthy parenting skills and behaviors as well as overcome barriers that have prevented them from providing emotional and financial support for their children.
Callahan turned to The FATHER Project, calling Johnson once or twice a week.
“When I needed him, he was always there. If I didn’t have somebody to talk me off the ledge many times, I definitely feel like I would’ve went back to using or just gave up because I felt there was no hope for me.”
Most states are mother-friendly, Johnson explained. “It’s an old model of the 1930s. Men are two Ps: providers and protectors, not nurturers, not lovers.”
In Callahan's case, courts were telling him he had no rights to his daughter. “I was blown away,” he said, adding he had fully intended to marry the mother when their daughter was born. He cut his child's umbilical cord. He signed a recognition of parentage so his name was on the birth certificate.
In the end, Callahan proved himself to a Becker County judge, who granted him custody. Callahan wants fathers to not give up.
“It doesn’t matter what your past is. There is hope. Everybody can change,” he said. “Everything I’ve been through made me who I am.”
Letting voices be heard
Johnson said suicide rates are higher for men because they aren’t allowed to talk about weighty feelings, such as crushing anxiety, depression, fear, anger or violence.
The reality is, Johnson continued, that women can assault men. “A guy should be able to say ‘I’ve got bruises. I’ve got scratches on my face. I don’t want to hurt her, so I take it.’ Well, then, who do you tell?”
“If you have struggles like that, you should be able to talk to someone,” Johnson said, adding the FATHER Project is that place and no one is judged. Johnson said he serves participants how they wish to be served. Some call or text him every day. Some attend meetings and that’s it.
The COVID pandemic has not hindered the FATHER Project’s outreach in Park Rapids — in fact, virtual meetings have allowed Johnson to expand.
Last fall, Johnson began teaching the “Nurturing Fathers” curriculum at the Alternative Learning Center at Park Rapids High School. It aims to help teens develop attitudes and skills for being loving, supportive fathers. They believe the program is the first of its kind in the state.
“Trauma opens doors that are truly hard to close. That’s why we’re here because we’re door closers,” he said. “We want to help people through those periods. I’ll be a lock on that door, but I won’t hold it shut for you. You need a lot of locks, a bunch of people.”
The triumph is that Callahan can now help his daughter with her emotions, Johnson continued. “That’s very profound. It’s a gift.”
Callahan has been sober from alcohol for six years now. He wants to teach and guide his daughter, who turned 7 in March.