(Above) Participants in the Dads Matter program at The Salvation Army Bethany Hope Centre in Ottawa hold their certificates of achievement (Photo: Debbie Wong)

When Tyreese became a father at 21, a community health nurse told him about The Salvation Army Bethany Hope Centre in Ottawa. After completing a prenatal and nutrition class called “Buns in the Oven,” he began attending Dads Matter, a Tuesday evening program designed especially for young fathers.

“We’re dads from all walks of life and every background who find common ground and learn to trust each other,” says Tyreese, who has attended the program ever since. “We are a family, a tribe. It has been one of the most positive experiences of my life.”

Tyreese practises his baking skills with Debbie WongTyreese practises his baking skills with Debbie Wong
“Each dad’s situation is unique, but what they all share is being a dad and loving their kids,” says Debbie Wong, the centre’s parent support and fathering worker. “They are eager to learn all they can to equip themselves and be the best dad they can be.”

Every week, they meet for a meal and a time of learning on a variety of topics, including child development, positive discipline, healthy attachment and the importance of self-care and healthy relationships.

“Everything we learn and practise is extremely useful, but what keeps me coming back and has helped the most is the atmosphere and having people I know I can count on and trust,” says Tyreese. “It’s helped me come out of my shell and be a better me.”

The program is one of many at the centre focused on improving the well-being of pregnant and parenting families under the age of 30. It also offers childcare, a health clinic, food bank, educational and housing help, healthy lunches, playgroups, one-on-one support, prenatal and parenting classes, as well as access to clothing and household items.

Though fathers are welcome to join any of the programs offered during the day, having a dad-specific program has provided a spirit of camaraderie and support through the joys and challenges of parenting.

“It’s a chance for them to build connections with other dads, share in their parenting experience and support each other,” says Wong. “We want to remind each dad of the significant role they play in their child’s life.”

During intake, the fathers are also made aware of Major Erin Verhey, the chaplain on site whose “door is always open,” as well as a prayer room for people of any faith to have a quiet space.

“The centre is a fantastic resource for young parents and we’re constantly doing outreach to let people know we’re here and have wonderful services to help people,” says Wong.

Now 25, Tyreese is the father of two children who, despite the busyness of life, tries not to miss a Tuesday night group. “I’ve been attending the program since my first child was born and have been putting the skills we learn in practice,” he says. “I’ve learned that it’s OK to open up with people, to trust people, and my relationship with my children and my partner is loving.

“Dads Matter has provided a really good foundation for life.”

Melissa Yue Wallace is a freelance writer living in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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