Updated: Oct 31, 2019
As a single father who had gained primary custody of his two young sons, Darin Kriener began looking around for a support group a couple of years ago.
There were plenty of local programs for mothers, and Kriener found that the groups advertised as being for parents seemed tailored more toward women.
So when Frederick Newell, a social worker involved with Kriener's family through their DHS case, began talking about forming a new program specifically for fathers, Kriener was on board.
Today, Kriener, a 39-year-old father of children ages 4 and 6, helps facilitate weekly meetings inside the Dream Center, an Iowa City nonprofit working to address the issue of absentee and non-involved fathers.
Kriener, who is among the 47 men currently involved in the center's Fatherhood Academy, said the support group has helped him define what it means to be a father. "It's helped me understand that I don't have to live up to the stoic, no emotion type of dad, or the always bumbling, making mistakes kind of dad," Kriener said. "I didn't have to do that if I didn't want to."
The Fatherhood Academy, along with a youth leadership program and a performing arts group, are among the components of the two-year-old Dream Center, which moved into new location this spring at 611 Southgate Ave.
The Fatherhood Academy's free and ongoing support group, Fathers United Now, meets on Monday and Tuesday nights, with sessions led by Newell and two facilitators, including Kriener. The group uses a curriculum provided by the National Fatherhood Initiative that focuses on parenting skills, relationship skills, job skills and conflict resolution. The support group's fathers come from all ages and backgrounds. A handful of dads, like Kriener, are the primary parents to their children. Some are married or are co-parenting with the mother. Others have no contact with their children but have hopes to be a part of their lives. At the meetings, the fathers — some who have served prison time, some whose children are in the DHS system and some who are struggling with other issues — talk about their highs and lows from the week. But the discussions go beyond parenting; personal responsibility, healthy relationships and financial literacy also are common themes. "The curriculum doesn't just focus on strengthening fathers. It focuses on strengthening the whole man," said Newell, himself a married father of five children.
Outside of the weekly sessions, the fathers get together for family activities regularly, with recent outings including shows at The Englert Theatre, dinners, trips to the Iowa Children's Museum and barbecues. On Saturday, several fathers met up at the annual Juneteenth celebration at Mercer Park.
The group also connects fathers who may be struggling with peers who serve as an around-the-clock resource beyond the meetings, Newell said. "Those dads in need of that extra support, we'll make sure that dads who are at a different place in their life connect with them and be in constant contact," Newell said. "So if a dad at 2 o'clock in the morning feels like he's going to relapse, he can connect with someone, and that person can come be with them and make sure he won't make that mistake.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, 24 million children, or one in three in the U.S., are living without their biological father in the home. That absence of father figure has created a crisis in the U.S., according to the organization: Children raised in fatherless homes are four times more likely to be living in poverty, more likely to suffer from emotional or behavioral problems, more likely to commit a crime, twice as likely to drop out of high school and are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.
"A lot of these issues kids are facing, they're more so growing up in a one-parent household," Newell said. "That's not a knock on mothers, but the statistics show that the father really does matter." Newell, 26, moved to Iowa City from Chicago to earn his a degree in social work at the University of Iowa while a single father. In addition to directing the Dream Center, he serves as an advocate for underserved and minority families through the Department of Human Services. Newell recently welcomed his fifth child.
Kingsley Botchway, an Iowa City Council member who serves on the Dream Center's board of directors, said the Fatherhood Academy is helping dads recognize the importance of their role within the family and gives them the tools to be more involved. "You think of people who have fathers in prison or fathers who are absentee, and how difficult the challenge is because of that," Botchway said. "Not just because of the fact of having that extra income in the family, but also because of the simple fact of not having someone there to impart fatherly things or teach you to tie a tie correctly, or how to 'be a man.' "Having that influence really helps fathers know their role, how important their place is and pushes fathers to do more with their children."
Lynette Jacoby, social services director for Johnson County, said helping fathers succeed is often an overlooked component of family support services. She said Newell's programs are helping fill that need.
"Fathers need to be considered an active, equally important part of the family dynamic, and I think Fred has really done an amazing job of connecting with dads to help them understand that and feel a part of their family," Jacoby said. "I think he's filled an important of the gap we've had in our community with regard to father services."
Reach Josh O'Leary at 887-5415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dream Center
• What: A nonprofit organization working to strengthen and empower families, with a focus on fathers and youth.
• Location: 611 Southgate Ave. Suite A in Iowa City
• Website: www.thedreamcenteria.org