Strong fathers, strong families: New program aims to support Latinx community

Two Grand Rapids groups, Family Futures and Strong Beginnings, have partnered to better serve an often marginalized community: Latinx fathers. Tackling issues such as language and cultural barriers, immigration fears, transportation needs, and education, the two organizations developed the research that led to the newly-launched Padres Fuertes program.
"There are multiple ways to great fatherhood," says Adnoris “Bo” Torres, the fatherhood coordinator of the "Padres Fuertes" initiative at Family Futures, a new program designed to specifically serve fathers of young children in the Latinx community. (For those who aren't familiar with the term "Latinx," it's used instead of Latino or Latina in order to bypass the problematic man-woman binary. You can read more about it here.) With healthy father-child relationships in mind, Torres seeks to serve a population as diverse as the many countries from which it hails.
Understanding that serving a diverse group of families can also bring great challenges, Family Futures partnered with Strong Beginnings to determine how best to serve Latinx families over two years ago. Tackling issues such as language and cultural barriers, immigration fears, transportation needs, and education, the two nonprofits developed the research that led to the launch of the Padres Fuertes program about a month and a half ago. Hired this summer, Torres is just diving into the six-week-old initiative that will meet Latinx fathers where they are, and seek to provide pathways to better relationships with their children. With years of working as an educator and in Detroit public schools, Torres seeks to apply his experience in community education for a diverse population to this unique opportunity.
So, when two nonprofits decide to put their heads together to better serve Latinx families in West Michigan, where do they start? Well, by doing what each do best.
Family Futures serves families by providing parent support, education and prevention-based programming. Strong Beginnings, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded program hosted by the Spectrum Health Foundation, provides maternal-child health support to women of color and has recently branched out to include African American fathers. Each utilizing their specialized skill sets, the two programs joined forces to conduct a 2014 study called "Familias Fuertes y Saludades," or "Strong and Healthy Families."
The 29-page report published in 2014 utilized human-centered design to explore what Latinx families truly needed from local organizations in order achieve equality in their communities and successful family relationships. Why Latinx? Regarding existing research about fathers and parenting in this growing population in the United States, "there just wasn't a lot out there," says Celeste Sanchez Lloyd, program manager at Strong Beginnings' Healthy Start. With 10 successful years serving the African American population in Michigan, Strong Beginnings sought to branch out to other groups of color and the group wanted to work with the Latinx community.
Working with African American fathers in the West Michigan community, Sanchez Lloyd witnessed the importance of fatherhood in their children's lives for almost a decade. "We realize that fathers make up a big part of being a family," she says. "Fathers need to be involved." Especially in minority communities in which the infant mortality rate is much higher than the white population, involvement of fathers in pregnancy and parenting is especially vital.
"African American infants born in Grand Rapids are 2.2 times more likely to die than white infants, according to 2015 data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. For Latina women in Kent County, records show there were 6.1 infant deaths for every 1,000 births compared to 4.5 for white women from 2012-2014," states an article by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that can be found on their website.
"Mom is so much stronger if she has a supportive partner," says Sanchez Lloyd. "We forget that dad is such an integral part of it." Modeling their approach after Grand Rapids African American Health Institute's fatherhood initiative, "Strong Fathers," Family Futures and Strong Families created "Padres Fuertes" to deepen the roots of the Latinx father in his family by providing helpful resources. Even before babies are conceived, fathers' involvement is vital in the mothers' choice of birth control and can prevent unintended pregnancy.
After babies are born, fathers can be particularly supportive as the new parents can navigate issues such as nursing, feeding, safe sleep, and returning to work. Putting it simply, Sanchez Lloyd notes that much of their work is breaking the stereotypes that fathers don't care to commit to their children. "Fathers need to be involved," she says. "Fathers make up a big part of being a family."
Understanding this need for united families, Family Futures and Strong Beginnings sought primarily direct feedback from Latinx parents to engage with this unique and equally diverse group. To get started with "Familias Fuertes y Saludades," the research staff from both nonprofits conducted three focus groups.
"Our program is only as good as what the fathers want," says Torres, who relies heavily on these comments to shape his approach. Resulting from these initial focus groups were concerns surrounding four themes: navigation, social support, language, and culture and education. These four themes informed Family Futures' and Strong Beginnings' entire foundation for their report, assisting them in defining the primary needs for the Latinx family in the West Michigan community.
Firstly, the study addressed navigation, or getting around one's community to seek work, education, childcare, or other resources. According to the study, "Particularly for recent immigrants, accessing or having limited knowledge of the most basic supports can be an overwhelming and frustrating task due to struggles with transportation, language, fear, geographical/economic/cultural segregation, in conjunction with immigration policies or holding an unauthorized immigrant status. Something as simple but necessary as riding the bus, reading a child’s homework or filling out paperwork can result in many Latinos feeling disempowered and frustrated."
In addition to physical navigation of one's environment, the nonprofits sought to address navigating access to free services for recent immigrants and non-English speakers. With a thriving Hispanic population in West Michigan, many services exist to support low income, immigrant and non-English speaking families, such as The Hispanic Center, Arbor Circle, Justice for Our Neighbors, Cherry Health, and the Kent County Health Department, but much of the time families are unaware of how to take advantage of these opportunities.
This particular issue is one of Torres's main concerns as the fatherhood coordinator. "I'm a resource, like a conduit for those fathers," he says. That is, he seeks to connect fathers with the exact resources that they need. This is especially important for many fathers who feel excluded from programs that only reach out to mothers, assuming that they are either absent or uninterested in programming for children and family health. Torres also noted that Latinx fathers sometimes shy away from receiving assistance due to the cultural idea of "pena," meaning "shame" or "embarrassment," emotions that he explains Latinx fathers feel if they struggle with family and childhood relationships.
The next theme that the report addressed is the struggle of solely Spanish-speaking and immigrant families with social support, isolation and fear. Because many recent immigrants are undocumented, they struggle to connect with other parents and thus build supportive networks. This issue leads directly into the next: language and culture, which can also be a barrier for recent immigrants, or simply those who have struggled to connect with West Michigan culture as they also navigate the demands of work and family.
Two of the most important things for Latinx fathers, notes Torres, are "being confident in the culture and speaking the language." That confidence can allow fathers to seek out support programs, such a substance abuse, smoking cessation, counseling and couple's counseling, all things that aid with personal and family growth. Torres even assists the fathers in his program with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to help them get started.
These types of language classes fall under the fourth category of the report: education. In the report, Latinx families, especially recent immigrants, expressed a desire to seek improvements in their own education, both for their own benefit, and that of their children.
"A 2011 study states that unauthorized parents are as dedicated to their children’s learning as parents with authorized or citizenship status (they read books, tell stories, or they engage their young children in others stimulating cognitive activities)," according to the report. However, the report notes, stresses like long work hours, low wages, and language barriers can limit the time Latinx families can spend with hands-on learning with their children. Seeking more and better education, panel participants mentioned "learning panels, parenting classes and classes for new immigrants" as resources they would like to see in their communities."
So with this detailed report in the hands of Family Futures and Strong Beginnings designed to serve Latinx parents, how did they zero in on a new initiative that specifically assisted fathers in the parenting experience?
"Through further community conversations and focus groups the need for an active fathers program within Familias Fuertes that really catered to the fathers was noticed," says Torres. "Research indicated that programs emphasizing Latinx father engagement should involve fathers in planning and decision-making."
With all of this data in hand and just six weeks into the initiative, Torres has begun working with the six families that have signed up. One of his most important goals? Simply being there for his clients. Understanding that most of the fathers in the program work long hours, Torres makes himself available for chats and in-home visits after office hours and on weekends. By connecting them with helpful resources and discussing their concerns and needs, Torres hopes to "increase a sense of empowerment" for these Latinx fathers.
Though "my focus is [fathers with children] between zero and two," says Torres, the fathers in the initiative have children as old as eight. Noting that the goal is to assist parents as early in their child's life as possible, Torres adds that a father's involvement is important at any age. "A father's role is so crucial to the development of a child," says Torres, who has now been tasked to reach a population with diverse needs and desires for healthy family futures. Seeking to serve 25 families within the first year of the initiative, Torres has big dreams for the program. Most of all, he, Family Futures and Strong Beginnings, are simply "giving our fathers a voice," says Sanchez Lloyd.
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Photography by Adam Bird
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