Mentors and support make all the difference for parents, especially those in need of timely advice.
Life went off track for José Rito Ruacho of Minneapolis as he approached his 20s, taking him away from his love of boxing at the Circle of Discipline gym on Lake Street and derailing his educational plans. Struggling with chemical dependency, he also became a father at age 20 to a girl, Rita.
While working with a chemical health counselor at CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio) in Minneapolis, Ruacho realized he wanted to do whatever he could to become a good father, but was having trouble spending time with his child because of a poor relationship with the baby's mother.
His counselor referred him to the Father Project, a joint collaboration between CLUES and Goodwill-Easter Seals, which provides resources in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including parenting support, child support services, family activities and employment services.
Last year, the Father Project was awarded a federal $1.7 million Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood grant, and the program is expanding outside the metro area to cities including St. Cloud and Rochester, with a goal of serving families of multiple ethnicities and minorities living in rural communities.
Participating in the Father Project not only helped to transform Ruacho's relationship with Rita, now 9, and her mother, but also changed the course of his life in other ways. Several months ago, he became a group facilitator for the program, helping other dads strengthen their parenting skills.
"In the support group, we have a 12-week curriculum that we follow, but we also go off of the needs of parents and the subjects they would like to touch on," said Ruacho. "I would say co-parenting and discipline are both big topics for most of our parents."
For cultural reasons, the idea of a true co-parenting relationship, whether the parents are together or apart, can be challenging, said Cira Sanchez, director of family enrichment services for CLUES. (More than 90 percent of participants in the program are referred from CLUES.)
"In the Latino culture, the father is the breadwinner and the mother is responsible for education and discipline," she said. "We want to teach the fathers that they have to be part of every aspect of their child's development."
Ruacho leads his group in Spanish since most participants are more comfortable talking in their native language. It doesn't take long for strong bonds to form within the group as they are able to share their parenting challenges and successes with one another, he noted.
Members of the program's parenting support group attend voluntarily and are parents of all ages, from young 20s through early 50s. Mothers are encouraged to attend the group discussions and many do, which can benefit the well-being of the entire family, Ruacho said. Light meals and child care are provided during each weekly session.
Another key component of the program is a focus on special fun and educational family events, such as picnics and seasonal gatherings that typically include food, activities, speakers, games and reading time for kids. This Father's Day, many members of the group will gather for a holiday picnic with the dads manning the grills.
Thinking back on the early days of fatherhood and the difficulties he had trying to establish a successful co-parenting relationship with Rita's mom, Ruacho noted there was tension, but their relationship today "is in a much better place" as they now communicate more easily about their daughter.
During a recent overnight visit, Ruacho had to call Rita's mom to check on whether Rita could really stay up as late as she said she could. "I knew she was trying to get away with something, and I was right," he said with a laugh.
Recently Ruacho, who has boxed competitively, returned to the Circle of Discipline, where he is sharing his skills with the youths at the gym, working as mentor and instructor. He is also completing a degree in business management at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Ruacho realizes how much his life has changed and he's grateful to CLUES and to his daughter for helping to make those changes happen. "Being on this side of things feels so good."