Updated: Oct 31, 2019
We can’t always pick our callings, our duties and obligations. Yet for some in Iowa City, the needs of the community present an undeniable call to action. Individuals who lead not because they desire fame or glory, but because the community needs it—requires it—lest we suffer as a whole.
These figures are important. Not because they assist the area’s most privileged and capable, but because they have devoted their time to serving the area’s most vulnerable residents—those of us who need help the most, and need it desperately. Those who are unsure of where their next meal is coming from, which bills they might (or might not) be able to pay or where they might turn to for help.
These are the people who answer the phone—who assist our community’s most at-risk and vulnerable individuals when no one else will. They do it not for money, but because they feel they must. And in doing so, these leaders selflessly strive to make our community a better place, regardless of whether or not the public is aware.
They work for organizations full of talented individuals—like-minded confidants who’ve come from different paths, but find themselves in pursuit of a common goal. These are just a few of their stories.
Growing up, Frederick Newell wanted to become a sports star or a musician. But those dreams quickly faded when the Chicago high school student discovered he was a soon-to-be father. The opportunities he had once envisioned for himself were seemingly replaced by formula, diapers and onesies.
Convinced that college would help secure a more stable future for his son, he enrolled at the University of Iowa. Once there, Newell worked hard to make a home and raise an infant, but was dismayed at the lack of available resources. “I couldn’t get food stamps or government assistance,” he said. “There was no support for single fathers.”
Each time Newell applied for aid—whether funding for childcare or money for formula—his pleas were met with skepticism. “I was always asked for documentation of custody, proof that my son was really my son,” he said.
Sans funding and a daycare provider, the young dad toted his son around campus, carrying him to every lecture. At best, it distracted Newell, and at worst, it invoked the ire of some professors. The once-stellar student, who graduated in the top three percent of his high school class, was fighting to maintain Cs.
“I struggled tremendously,” he said.
By the end of the academic year, Newell was prepared to withdraw from school. But before he did, a professor approached him and coaxed the young dad to consider a career in social work. “I didn’t have the courage to drop her class after that,” Newell said. “She empowered me to continue and became a mother figure to me.”
Three years later, Newell earned his degree and went on to become a social worker assisting youth and families. But he was disappointed to find that many of the organizations with whom he interacted focused primarily on women and children.
“As a father, I always wondered why we weren’t engaging dads and asking them to be a part of the conversation,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to do that.”
The solution presented itself in 2012 when Newell piloted a summer program for youth. His goal was eight participants. By the end of the summer he had 68. The group was composed of fifth to eighth graders—“young men people had already given up on,” Newell says.
At the same time, he also started a support group for fathers, a place where men could gather to talk about what it meant to raise children on a daily basis. The first attempt didn’t go well. “Men thought I was trying to tell them they were bad parents,” he said. So Newell re-branded the fatherhood program as a brotherhood meeting, and soon gained a solid foothold in the community.
That foothold turned into the Dream Center, an Iowa City-based organization with a mission to “strengthen families, change lives and restore hope.” The Center—which operates largely through donations and volunteer support—now runs a wide variety of programming, including a performance arts academy for youth and a full-fledged fatherhood academy that provides counseling, training and resources to help dads become financially and emotionally involved parents, and also establish healthy relationships with the mothers of their respective children.
“We want to empower dad to empower mom. We want to connect with him and help him provide for his family,” said Newell.
It seems to be working. The Dream Center now boasts 10 fathers who have been granted full custody of their children after participating in the agency’s programs.
Newell credits success to the fact that his organization has never purported to have all the answers.
“Youth, dads and moms know what they need, and those are the individuals that help us put programs in place,” he said. “Everything we do is a partnership.”
These days, Newell estimates he puts in about 30 to 40 hours per week at the Dream Center, while maintaining full time employment as a social worker at City High School. And as if that weren’t enough, Newell is now a proud father of four. He takes his children to the Center, where he hopes they will one day join other youth in seizing “opportunities to be productive individuals in our community.”