BY DAMIEN KEEN, Fatherhood Engagement Specialist
Today in America, approximately 18 million kids are growing up without a dad who’s actively engaged in their life. As someone who grew up without a father figure, I can relate to how painful that absence can be.
Culturally, we often overlook the role fathers play in raising kids. Although we’ve come a long way from old-fashioned stereotypes about gender roles in parenting, many people still think of moms as the primary caregiver – an assumption that single dads, same-sex dads, and stay-at-home dads continue to struggle against today. But the reality is that dads carry equal responsibility to love, support and care for their children. They also deserve equal respect and rights as parents. This is true for all dads.
As for myself, I am dad to three beautiful boys, ages four, five and 13. I am blessed and grateful to be a “boy dad,” which I feel is the ultimate calling. My middle son, who is my adopted nephew, was a special gift in my life that I didn’t realize I was missing. Anybody who knows me knows that they are my world, and I cannot imagine my life without them in it.
Raising a family of my own has taught me that while being a father is a matter of biology, being a dad is a choice. If you are willing to put in the time and stick with your kid through thick and thin, anyone – stepdads and foster dads, older brothers and granddads, coaches and teachers – can be a great role model for a child who needs one.
Early in life, I dreamed of starting an outreach organization for underprivileged kids who, like me, came from Orlando’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. I felt that if I could rise above my upbringing and come out okay, I could reach back and help others who were going through the same thing. Having the opportunity to work as a child welfare advocate feels like coming full circle.
One of the first things you notice when you work in child welfare is that dads are less involved than moms. Part of that issue is systemic. We’ve spent many years accustomed to the idea that dads are optional, and changing that model starts with changing the status quo. Change is possible, and I’ve met many amazing men who are willing to put in the work to make that happen.
In some cases, that means giving dads and dads-to-be the tools they need to provide a better home for their children. These tools may include parenting classes and peer support networks. In others, it means stepping up to fill the gap for kids who don’t have a dad in their lives – such as volunteering as a mentor, getting certified as a foster parent, or supporting after-school programs and enrichment programs for children in need.
While I have not started my own organization yet, I’m thrilled to be embarking on a different role as the new Fatherhood Engagement Specialist at Embrace Families. Embrace is Central Florida’s lead nonprofit agency overseeing foster care and family services. My job is simply to build stronger families by empowering fathers to become dads.
Simply put, we can’t heal every broken family. What we can do is strive to provide more resources for families by equipping dads with the education and encouragement they need to take more active roles in their children’s lives. Here at Embrace Families, we are doing our part to support young people on their path to adulthood. To find out more about how you can help, visit www.embracefamilies.org.
Damien Keen is the Fatherhood Engagement Specialist with Embrace Families, the lead nonprofit agency overseeing child welfare in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.