IOWA CITY — When Sam Stephens was sent to prison in 2012 on a drunk-driving charge, he had to turn his children over to the Department of Human Services (DHS) for placement in foster care.
Now out of prison and reunited with his children, he attends a father’s support group at the Dream Center in Iowa City.
At a meeting on March 24, he announced he’d received full legal custody of his children. The room of men applauded.
Many of them have been in similar situations that caused them to be separated from their children. Many grew up with absent fathers themselves.
All are looking for ways to grow as fathers and to support each other.
Supporting fathers is at the heart of the Dream Center’s mission. Social worker Frederick Newell founded the Iowa City-based not-for-profit in May 2012 as a response to the growing number of youth affected by absent and non-involved fathers.
Newell had his first child at 17, when he was a junior in high school, so he knows first hand the challenges fathers can face. He moved to Iowa City from Chicago and earned a degree in social work from the University of Iowa while raising his son on his own.
“As a young father, there wasn’t any support for me. I struggled to get any kind of assistance,” he said. “I struggled to get my son in day care. My son went to every class with me in college.”
After graduating in 2010, he knew he wanted to help other fathers succeed.
“There are a lot of programs focused on young women, on mothers,” he said. “Any time a father would have questions, there was nowhere to really send them.”
The National Fatherhood Initiative provides the Dream Center with curriculum and materials to use in its Fatherhood Academy programs. The Initiative cites U.S. Census Bureau statistics that 24 million children in America — one in three — grow up without their biological father in the home.
Along with his role as Dream Center executive director, Newell works as a community advocate, contracted through the Partnership for Safe Families for DHS, working to keep families together. Newell believes more fathers would stay involved in their children’s lives if they had better access to support and resources.
For men such as Iowa City-resident John Harry, the Dream Center’s Father’s United Now support group, which he helps facilitate, offers a chance for men to discuss their challenges and successes with others who can relate to them.
“We just want to encourage men to stay a part of their kids’ lives,” he said.
Since 2012, the Dream Center has expanded quickly, outgrowing two different meeting spaces. The organization recently moved into a 9,600-square-foot building at 611 Southgate Ave., Suite A, which it will share with the Kingdom Center church.
It now offers programming for families and youth along with fathers. The center partners with a number of other community groups to offer a Youth Leadership Academy and a Performance Arts Academy for youth.
On March 25, a group of girls met at the Dream Center to practice a dance routine for their group Ordained to Praise, led by Nikesha Jones of Coralville, while a group of South East Junior High students did homework and chatted.
“I just like coming here,” seventh-grader Antonio Turner said. “They’re just teaching us to be young men.”
For now, the center operates entirely on private donations, but Newell said he hopes to begin applying for grants soon. He envisions being able to hire one or two staff members and purchase more vans to pick up children for youth activities.
His wife is preparing to have a baby, their third and Newell’s fifth. He’s come a long way since his days of studying in the UI library with just his young son by his side. It’s a success story he believes other men can achieve — but that they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
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