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Jail program teaches incarcerated dads to become the fathers they want to be

  • Jason Gonzales, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail, holds his daughter, Zamari, 5 months, during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jason Gonzales an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail, holds his daughter, Zamari, 5 months, during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, at the jail. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan speaks during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the Hampshire County Jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Susan Bartley, who is the executive director of The Children's Trust, speaks during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the Hampshire County Jail. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, center, and Michael Ramos, who is a fatherhood initiative coordinator for The Children's Trust, listen. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aaron Anderson, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail, spends time with his girlfriend, Danielle Townsend, and their son, Noah, 8 months, during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. Sheriff Patrick Cahillane speaks, background. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Robert Riopelle, an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail, hugs his mother during the Nurturing Fathers program graduation ceremony Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Susan Bartley, center right, who is the executive director of The Children's Trust, meets Noah Anderson, 8 months, during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the Hampshire County Jail. Aaron Anderson, who is Noah's father, an inmate at the jail, and a graduate of the program, looks on with his fiance and Noah's mother, Danielle Townsend. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aaron Anderson, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail, spends time with his stepdaughter, Abigail Townsend, his girlfriend, Danielle Townsend, and their son, Noah, 8 months, during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shane Morin, who was in the first graduating class of the Nurturing Fathers program at the Hampshire County Jail, speaks during a graduation program for those currently in the program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shaquille Rodriguez, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, speaks during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Milanovich, right, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, shakes hands with Sheriff Patrick Cahillane during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jose Rivera, left, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, hugs Sheriff Patrick Cahillane during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jose Famania, right, an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, shakes hands with Sheriff Patrick Cahillane during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday at the jail. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Keith Shaw, left, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, shakes hands with Vuthy Chhum, a forensic clinician, during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. Michael Ramos, who is a fatherhood initiative coordinator for The Children's Trust, looks on. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Darryl Daniels, left, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, receives a handshake and a certificate of completion from Vuthy Chhum, a forensic clinician, during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jose Rivera, left, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and a graduate of the Nurturing Fathers program at the jail, receives a handshake and a certificate of completion from Vuthy Chhum, a forensic clinician, during a graduation ceremony, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jason Gonzales, left, who is an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail, shares a laugh with Michael Ramos, who is a fatherhood initiative coordinator for The Children's Trust, while holding his daughter, Zamari, 5 months, during a graduation ceremony for the Nurturing Fathers program, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 at the jail. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@mjtidwell781
Thursday, June 28, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — At the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction on a rainy Wednesday night, 10 fathers took turns standing before a room full of people and nervously started to read.

“The father I want to be is the father I have not been,” said Keith Shaw, father of five. “My children need to be heard and told how important they are.”

“In spite of all my transgressions, I make a choice and I choose to be a nurturing father,” said Darryl Daniels. “I choose to be a role model who leads by example, to be there whenever my children need me and to teach my children to channel their emotions into something positive.”

“I choose to be, 1, 2, 3,” said Jose David Rivera of his daughter.

“A nurturing father,” nine other voices answered.

The gathering was a graduation. Ten fathers incarcerated at the jail spent the last 12 weeks learning how to listen to their children fully and understand them, how to respond to disobedience in healthy and productive ways and how to build an “unbreakable bond” with their children, even while separated by walls.

In partnership with the Children’s Trust Fund and the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office, the Nurturing Fathers Program is a grant-supported curriculum that teaches men fathering skills. Typically, the program lasts 14 weeks and culminates with a graduation where families are invited to hear the fathers’ essays. Wednesday’s graduation was the fifth celebrated by the program over the last three years.

Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane said that during the program, the fathers have to consider all different parts of their lives and how to become better fathers, and, in effect, better people.

“This is one of those joyous moments; the connection between these fathers and their children says it all,” Cahillane said. “It’s a very difficult task to be a father and it’s that much harder when you’re separated by incarceration. They respect the responsibility of being a father.”

Opening the eyes, heart

With plates of chicken, fish, vegetables, rice and salad prepared by the jail’s culinary arts program and served by some of its chefs, families gathered at long, cloth-covered tables to feast and celebrate the fathers’ graduation.

Jason Gonzales and his fiancee, Ashley Savoie, sat cuddling their 5-month-old daughter Zamari. Gonzales’ mom, Digna, also sat with the little family, while the couple’s 7- and 10-year-old daughters were at home.

“It’s a blessing to be here with my mom, my fiancee and my daughter,” Gonzales said. “I want to be more patient, more proactive. Life’s not easy, and I want to support and encourage my daughters.”

Savoie joked that Gonzales now calls her and says they’ve been “parenting all wrong” and passes along the things he’s learned.

“I think a lot of families should have access to programs like this,” Gonzales said. “This program is just awesome. It lets you touch base with an inner part of yourself you didn’t even know existed.”

Robert Riopelle said he was skeptical of the program at first and nervous about trying it, but after he went to the first class, the program opened his eyes and his heart, which he said “often stays closed.”

“It’s all about my daughter,” Riopelle said. “I don’t want her to follow in my footsteps or her friends’ footsteps. I want her to make her own footsteps.”

He said he rewrote his “the father I want to be” letter seven times to his 9-year-old daughter.

His fiancee, Ashley Thibodeau, teared up as he read his letter and said she was so proud of Riopelle. His incarceration is due to end Friday and his daughter has a full list of activities planned for her father’s return, including “cliff jumping” off rocks into the river, swimming and soccer.

“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” Riopelle read. “It’s what you do with the experience that matters.”

Honest and serious

Aaron Anderson held his curious 8-month-old son Noah. Anderson said he wanted to learn as much as he could for his first and only son, as well as his stepdaughter.

“The seriousness of the class was very appealing. It’s very private and serious, which is a good break from the joking around that goes on here,” Anderson said. “It’s good to be upbeat, but it’s also good to have time to be honest and serious.”

He said the facilitators — Vuthy Chhum, Rafael Santos and Demetra Balis — were very honest about their own lives and families, which he said he respected a lot.

Chhum joked and greeted each graduate with a personal anecdote as he handed out their certificates and introduced the speakers who read letters to their children that started with “the father I want to be.”

Shane Morin, a graduate of the very first cycle of the program, came back to speak about his successful transition out of prison and into full-time employment and reuniting with his daughter.

“I grew up in an environment where there was domestic violence and substance abuse. I realized I was starting to repeat those patterns with my daughter,” Morin said. “Nurturing Fathers helped me learn how to parent in a healthy way. It’s not often you get to take that time to learn how to be a better father.”

Shaquille Rodriguez said he was unsure of trying the program at first but once he started he “couldn’t get enough of it,” and started working ahead on the homework for the week ahead.

“When it comes to my son, I’ll do anything for him,” Rodriguez said. “And all I have is time.”

The program progresses with a workbook of exercises and teachings, coupled with weekly classes. The fathers are given homework and each week tackles a different topic, sometimes asking them to look deeply into their histories and upbringings, asking deeply difficult questions of themselves.

Rodriguez said the lesson from week 10 on co-parenting and teamwork really helped him. He’s been with his 5-year-old son’s mother ever since high school, and at 25, he was the youngest of the graduates on Wednesday.

“She was my prom date, my sweetheart all this time,” Rodriguez said. “The program helped me learn how to co-parent as best as possible. The way we interact and treat each other around our son really matters.”

Children as compass

District Attorney David Sullivan originally helped start the program, bringing it to the Children’s Trust to consider partnering, and has come to every graduation.

“Fathers being engaged with their children is the number one thing you can do for rehabilitation,” Sullivan said. “My one piece of advice is this: Have a picture of your kid or kids in your wallet. That’s your compass.”

He addressed the graduates, saying Wednesday’s ceremony was not just a recognition of the work done in the program, but a new beginning as well.

“You only get so many chances in life. The fathers here tonight, you’re great,” Sullivan said. “Looking inward is really tough and I commend you for the hard work and dedication that will benefit your children, and their moms, too.”

Daniel Sanchez, who completed the program during its last cycle and came to support the new graduates, said he was incarcerated for issues related to domestic violence. He said the program was especially important for him to learn how to be there for his son and how to better communicate with his son’s mother.

Cassie Knapp said she’s seen a big difference in how Keith Shaw handles situations with their two sons, Kaleb and Nolyn, and sees him talk through situations with the boys instead of getting angry or yelling.

“He’s had a hard life, but he’s working hard to make things better for our children,” Knapp said.

New graduate Steven Milanovich said it was one of the best programs he had ever participated in and said the fathers were able to learn from each others’ experiences.

The executive director of the Children’s Trust, Susan Bartley, said the organization just received another round of funding to continue the program for the next cycle. A big part of the program, she said, is helping fathers look at how they were raised and examine how they can be a better dad to their own children, breaking cycles passed down.

“It’s not easy to go back and look at the things we’ve put away in a closet,” Bartley said. “We’ve asked you to pry that closet open and sit there with all of those boxes and decide what your dad gave you and what you want to keep, what you want to give away and what boxes you want to create for yourself.”

Michael Ramos, the fatherhood initiative coordinator for the Children’s Trust, is a father of four himself.

“I believe that fatherhood is a journey, not a destination,” Ramos said. “And I believe any man can be a great father.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.