Monday 05.16.2016

Sister Carol Helps To Transform Fathers At Fathers’ Support Center

The following article was originally published in the Missouri Catholic Conference Messenger Online. View entire story here.

Sometimes the most extraordinary stories are the most ordinary moments. A father spends a Sunday afternoon with his son; they watch football, root for the same team, share a bag of chips and work on homework together until they doze off side by side on the couch. There are smiles, laughs, and shared feelings of love and security.

But through modern society’s looking glass, it’s too often seen that non-custodial fathers don’t experience these kinds of Sundays. They are expected to provide support for their children through one specific means: cash. These fathers, who are separated from their children for various reasons, are taught that money or expensive gifts are the keys to good parenting. While it’s true that being financially responsible is indeed an important aspect of fatherhood, another vital facet is physical presence. It’s gifts of time and love that foster meaningful relationships with children.

Fathers’ Support Center (FSC), an organization based in St. Louis, is working toward giving those Sunday afternoons back to dads and their kids. The center’s goal is to establish relationships that are more than monetary; FSC strives to educate these men to support their children financially, emotionally and developmentally. The courses can be rigorous and challenging, but have the potential to be life changing.

Daughter of Charity Carol Schumer teaches the parenting portion of the six-week core program at FSC called Family Formation. Men enrolled in this demanding “boot camp” program have committed themselves to a six-week, “full immersion” experience. They arrive at the center at 7:45am each weekday and spend the mornings in classroom and roundtable settings. Participants learn the skills necessary for parenting, for personal, spiritual and emotional development, and for the prevention of both child and substance abuse. At the end of the program, graduates possess the foundation and start-up tools necessary to become responsible fathers and functioning members of their communities. Graduates of the program receive follow-up services and support for at least one year in order to ensure their questions are answered and their needs are met.

To some onlookers, Sr. Carol might seem like the least likely candidate to teach a parenting class; after all, she has no experience raising children of her own. But within a few moments of hearing her speak to her class at Fathers’ Support Center, it’s vividly apparent why she’s here. She has a way of communicating that is hard to surpass, playing the role of parent by shepherding estranged fathers into a life of responsible parenthood.

She begins by creating a comfortable space for the fathers, quickly acknowledging her lack of parenting experience, her apparent whiteness and woman-ness, all things that drastically differentiate her from the men in the room. But she promises that despite these differences, if they stick with the program they’re bound to learn something. This could be a life changer, she says. When she asks the fathers to share their feelings about working with her, most of them say they are optimistic, excited about the partnership; others admit their skepticism. And that’s okay with Sr. Carol. She’s not interested in fake responses. This class is real. The problems are real. And the solutions are real. There’s no getting things done under false light. “I love what I do,” she says. “I love being able to walk with you.”

All participants (including visitors) introduce themselves and give a glimpse into their lives; they share their birthplace, names of their children, and concerns about their parenting strategies. It is a familial environment. No one is judged; there is no hierarchy—the setting nurtures learning, first and foremost. Over the next six weeks, these men will learn important lessons in unconventional ways. Sr. Carol uses old comic strips and anecdotes to relay important information in a way the fathers can understand on a deeper level, rather than rattling off instructions or handing out bullet-pointed informational materials.

The first class is rounded out with a quick story about a father and son.

After a lengthy shift, a tired man returns home to his young son, who bombards him with a question at the door: Daddy, how much do you make an hour? Exhausted and frustrated, the father sharply questions his son, wondering why he is prodding in his business. He realizes his harshness, and answers his son’s inquiry. Ten dollars an hour, he says. His son then asks for ve dollars. Again, out of frustration, the father asks him why he needs the money and, assuming he’ll use it for selfish reasons, he sends the boy to his room. After a few moments the father realizes his misplaced frustrations and goes to give his son the money he asked for. Elated, the boy reaches under his pillow and pulls out another five dollar bill. He hands the ten dollars back to his father. Confused, the father asks why he is returning his money. With a hopeful smile, the son says: I’d like to buy an hour of your time, Daddy.

Through stories, family bonding days, structure and other elements, FSC works its magic, transforming fathers into the best versions of themselves. Some men may struggle, but Sr. Carol says the outcome is worth the hard times. “It’s not how you fall,” she says. “It’s how you get yourself back up.”