FIT to be a father

The last thing Michael wanted to hear was somebody else telling him what to do.

Divorced, out of a job, and behind on child support payments, he didn’t look forward to attending Vineyard Family Services’ F.I.T. DAD program.

“To be honest, I thought it was going to be ‘beat up on dad’ time,” Michael said. “But it’s not like that. It’s been better than I thought. It’s a support group.”

The Fatherhood Initiative Training program helps fathers who are behind on child support payments. The 13-week class meets once a week at Inverness Vineyard Church on Valleydale Road.

Shelby County Family Court refers men to the program, keeping them out of prison. The class teaches men about child support enforcement and how to be better fathers.

“The goal is to have involved, active and responsible fathers,” said Ward Williams, who oversees F.I.T.

The program also helps men find jobs, get their GEDs and know their legal rights. But the dads say the support they receive from other fathers is the program’s biggest asset.

“You kind of feel defeated. There are times you feel like running, but you realize other people are going through the same thing,” said Michael, a divorced father of two. “It helps to see others’ success and failures … I’m not by myself. The biggest thing is when you feel by yourself.”

Dads of all backgrounds make up the program. They are black and white, young and middle-aged, divorced and never married. But Michael said the men all have one thing in common.

“I don’t think anybody here doesn’t want to support and be there for his kids,” he said.

To graduate from the program, fathers must stay in compliance with all court orders about child support. They are also encouraged to have regular visitation with their children and a civil relationship with the child’s mother.

“It’s a good program. It’s taught me a lot of things,” said Kenny, a father of three. “You’ve got to participate to get something out of it. It takes time to get it right.”

In return for completing the class, Vineyard Family Services will advocate for the men in court.

Since August 2007, F.I.T. has helped take in more than $65,000 in back child support, Williams said. The program also works with men at the Shelby County Work Release Center.