Data and common wisdom agree — children with involved fathers have a better chance of avoiding problems such as homelessness and teen pregnancy, and leading happier, more productive lives.
Engagement with their children benefits fathers, too, as they set and achieve goals, adopt positive habits and recognize their own value. But barriers such as poverty, addiction and unhealthy relationships can derail even caring dads, to the detriment of families and communities.
Upstate Fatherhood Coalition provides a wide variety of services to help fathers — and some mothers — overcome those barriers, rebuilding their lives and families. The nonprofit was formed in 1999 by a group of concerned citizens from Greenville and Spartanburg counties with funding from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.
“Everything we do is about parenting. We give kids a second chance by putting fathers back in their lives in a positive way.” – Kelly Walker, executive director, Upstate Fatherhood Coalition
Kelly Walker, executive director, said the program was initially designed as a means to eradicate poverty. Over its 20 years the coalition has evolved to comprise a series of measures that help fathers get their lives on track so they can be the parents their children need. Participation can be voluntary, or court-ordered, as in the Jobs not Jail program, an alternative to incarcerating parents who are behind on their child support. After an initial assessment, each participant sets goals and creates an action plan, then attends weekly curriculum-based peer support groups focused on parenting skills, economic stability and healthy relationships.
“Our ‘boot camp’ provides 20 hours of comprehensive employment readiness and tips on parenting that help them achieve economic stability,” Walker said. “When they come in, they’re in survival mode; we help them get into sustainability mode, understanding that their decisions have consequences, and teach them how to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. The whole program is unique. By offering alternatives to incarceration, we’re saving tax money. With stable employment, they can pay child support. It’s a win-win, and it strengthens families.”
Transportation, mediation and legal assistance are available, and participants are directed to community partners for additional services where needed. A men’s health initiative through Prisma Health Greenville Health Authority provides education, screenings and referrals.
“They can get referrals for mental health and dental care,” Walker said. “They are screened for conditions like hypertension and diabetes they don’t even realize they have because they didn’t have access to health care.”
The measurable results are impressive: In 2019, Upstate Fatherhood Coalition reported serving 968 participants, impacting 1,074 children. Through its efforts, participants were able to pay $376,160 in child support, and taxpayers saved $2.81 million through its Jobs Not Jail program. No less important are the effects that cannot be measured — reduced conflict and instability, and closer family relationships.
The nonprofit’s holistic approach to keeping fathers connected also includes fun parent-child activities, and a family room where they can spend time together. Reading to children is encouraged.
“Everything we do is about parenting,” Walker said. “We give kids a second chance by putting fathers back in their lives in a positive way.”
Because education is such an important route to job security, Upstate Fatherhood Coalition plans to add courses providing a pathway to higher education. In anticipation of this added responsibility, Walker has nearly completed a master’s degree in business administration at Limestone College. The Community Foundation of Greenville contributed toward his tuition, recognizing the importance of the nonprofit’s work and the promise of its future initiatives.
“Upstate Fatherhood is a unique organization that helps mothers and fathers establish and maintain loving relationships with their children even though they don’t live in the same home,” said Bob Morris, Community Foundation of Greenville president. “Oftentimes, a noncustodial parent needs employment assistance or record expungement to help them meet their financial obligations. This allows parents to be a positive presence as their children grow up. Giving parents these tools pays dividends across our community.”
For more information, visit https://www.upstatefathers.org.