Welcome to our Changemaker Profiles blog series! Each edition we profile one outstanding social changemaker from the JVA client community. By sharing the stories of some of the incredible people we get to work with every day, each accomplishing extraordinary work in nonprofits, government, social enterprise and elsewhere, we hope we will bring a little light and inspiration to your day!

This week, in honor of Father’s Day, we reached out to Denver Indian Center Inc. (DICI) to highlight its Honoring Fatherhood Program (HFP). DICI connected us with Shawna Maher, relationship guidance specialist at DICI and a co-facilitator of HFP. Joining Vision and Action is in the fourth year of a five-year evaluation of the federally funded program and provides pre- and post-program and follow-up surveys that measure the impact HFP is having on participants, as well as providing feedback on what’s working and what could be improved. 

1. Tell us about Denver Indian Center’s Honoring Fatherhood Program and what it does for fathers and families.

“The program is designed to help fathers, primarily, and in turn it helps their families. The Honoring Fatherhood Program’s mission is tied with the mission at the Denver Indian Center, to help fathers look at their choices. The Honoring Fatherhood Program (HFP) was established to equip and encourage fathers to live with integrity and purpose, and to strengthen the families, homes and communities they are a part of. Ultimately, where we are today is by choices. So we’re helping them to look at where those choices or decisions came from and how to move forward. And we encourage self-determination, so they can go in and make their own goals for and lead their families where they want to go.

“We recruit fathers for the program. There have been women that have joined; we have one right now who is a single mother. It’s primarily Native fathers, but non-Native are welcome to join as well. Our sessions and information is primarily coming from a Native perspective. It’s 16 sessions; we go over healthy relationships, parenting, co-parenting and financial management. We have speakers come in and talk about budgeting, credit, etc. We just offer information; it’s not really a support group, but it’s really nice, in my opinion, for fathers to be able to come in and talk about their struggles, concerns and goals and anything else they’re going through with being a father and a partner (husband/boyfriend, co-parent).

“I am a relationship guidance specialist. I co-facilitate group sessions and, in doing so, I am able to provide a woman’s perspective and parenting/co-parenting tools and support. And then I also am their case management connection, and I help them find resources in the community and provide participants with support services, such as work boots, work clothes and transportation assistance if needed.”

2. Can you talk a bit about the importance of fathers, particularly in Native communities?

“Fathers play a really important role in families and also in communities. In Native communities, they are considered leaders, protectors and also warriors. So when they’re taking care of their families, they’re also taking care of communities. The program wants to emphasize that and how important they are.”

3. Does HFP offer any advice for dads when things get tough? Or do you have any?

“I am a mother of four, and a wife, and my oldest is 21 and my youngest is 8. So I might have helpful hints, but obviously from a woman’s perspective. I would advise fathers to not give up on their families or communities, because their families and communities do need them. Sometimes they feel like what’s the use; I get that. I would say persevere and you will find strength.

“If something is hard, HFP tries to offer tools. We think the fathers have everything that it takes within themselves; it is our job to bring that out of them. So, use the tools around you, and you will build strength for that challenge.”

“We see a lot of fathers who are dealing with custody battles. Most of them are single fathers and not able to see their kids as much as they want. We definitely encourage them. We talk about walking in others’ shoes and having empathy… When they go through it positively instead of giving up, it gives them strength that they probably never knew they had.

“The other advice I would have is not to be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. I know it’s a huge thing for men to be vulnerable. But it helps to find someone you can trust to talk to about what you’re going through. Find someone that is ‘walking their talk’; basically, they practice what they preach. At the end of the day, your children, partner and communities need you.”

4. How has Denver Indian Center worked with JVA on the Honoring Fatherhood Program, and how has that helped your organization? 

“The data that JVA collects with its interviews and focus groups allows us to see where we’re missing the mark, to see what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s really helpful because we did 16 sessions and we wanted to check retention. A lot of people were falling off after like the eighth week, so with JVA’s help we’re on a path to fix that. We’re doing two sessions in one day. That’s one big thing. And the other small comments we get as feedback are helpful as well, to add more or take away some, whether that’s certain topics or being more engaged with them.”

5. What else would you want to share with us that we haven’t asked?

“What I have noticed is I see program participants turn from hesitant and curious at the beginning and then toward the middle I start seeing confidence, empowerment; they’re carrying themselves a little differently. They’re opening up more; we have built trust with them.

“They seem more empowered to face the challenges of being a father or a partner. It feels like a huge turnaround for the ones that are really engaged and continue to come.”

“I believe they want more when they’re finished. When participants finish, they ask or tell us that they would like to help out and volunteer or continue to come to the sessions with the new groups. They seem to want to be more involved in the community.

“I don’t think there are a lot of programs for fathers. I don’t know if it goes both ways, if it’s because men don’t want it. But I think the whole community, not just the Indian community, would benefit from groups like this more often. It’s rewarding for me to see something like this impact fathers and families. It’s really nice to be a part of it.”

Keep up with the area’s most inspiring changemakers—read JVA’s Changemakers blog!