Almost three months into her new job, Valerie Derisme has settled into the swing of things.
She starts her mornings by flipping through the files and notes on her 25 clients at the Saint Joseph Parenting Center, reading up on their weekly goals or upcoming court dates. On Monday mornings, she moderates a session of the center’s flagship parenting classes.
Case managers at the Stamford-based organization, like Derisme, help parents push through the real-world challenges of parenthood with education and support. Now, thanks to a grant from the federal government, the center hopes to increase its service to fathers, focusing on what they need to succeed.
“A lot of time dads, they love their children, but because of their experience, which may not have been good, they have a tendency to pass on what they’ve learned,” said Rhonda Neal, executive director of the center. “So, this class helps them to identify the source of their knowledge of parenting, how it impacted them as a child, and what are some of the areas of opportunities for development.”
The organization’s fatherhood program, also known as 24/7 Dads, earned the Saint Joseph Parenting Center more than $665,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its Fatherhood F.I.R.E. grant, which stands for Family-focused, Interconnected, Resilient and Essential.
To the center, those four words translate to active and engaged parenting, said Assistant Executive Director Lauren Goodman. Started in 2013 with help from the state’s Department of Children and Families, the dad’s class addresses the specific hindrances fathers face while navigating things like custody battles or child support.
“The legal barriers, the financial barriers that have kept very willing fathers out of their children’s lives are just, unfortunately, very sad,” said Goodman. “We really wanted to bring fathers in and educate them on what their rights are, so that they can understand that they can be a part of their child’s life.”
Mothers and fathers alike come to the center through a myriad of paths. Some are referred directly by the judicial system or the Department of Children and Families. Others hear about the center through word of mouth. Sometimes, clients stumble into the office, tucked into the Stamford’s Boys and Girls Club, wholly by accident and stick around of their own accord.
Whichever way a person arrives at the center, the end goal is always the same: providing people from all walks of life with parenting education and resource support.
“We really believe in community-based parenting education,” said Goodman, who has worked at the center for almost eight years. That approach attempts to capture who a parent is holistically. Parenting classes, taught in English and Spanish, touch on everything from budgeting and nutrition to abuse and its impacts on a family.
Over the duration of the courses, currently being conducted via Zoom, parents connect with one another, share tips they’ve learned on parenting, and meet with their case managers to make sure they’re on track to complete the course. A case manager is always present, virtually or otherwise, to make sure the conversation keeps flowing, and community members, experts in particular fields, come in to teach lessons, said Derisme.
The combined support from the outside world, case workers and other parents creates an ecosystem in which parents feel like they can thrive, center officials said.
“We believe that it’s just as important to have informal supports and formal supports to build that network,” said Goodman.
All the lessons from the general parenting course come together in SJPC’s more specialized classes — the Women’s Circle and 24/7 Dads. While the former works as a community space where women can talk about the intricacies of motherhood with others, 24/7 Dads takes a different approach.
Over 12 weeks, the course attempts to break apart the societal pressures fathers face while encouraging them to take an active role in a child’s life. Neal said they named the course 24/7 Dads because the work of a father is never over, not even when a child is grown and away from home.
Through the money provided by Health and Human Services, the center wants to build out its fatherhood program and expand the curriculum. On top of the existing classes, Neal and her staff want to integrate job skills classes from the general parenting curriculum into the program. Additionally, the Saint Joseph Parenting Center is adding modules on intimate partner violence directed specifically for men.
Neal said victims rightfully have resources and services at their disposal, but few programs tackle abusers and their rehabilitation. “At the end of the day, these offenders have got to be in society,” said Neal. With more classes comes more staff, another addition the grant money will help the center cover.
“We’ve weathered some tough waters, [but] we’re still here,” said Neal. “This grant has really stabilized us and now we’re looking to expand. We want to invite people to be a part of the family.”