Teen Dads group in Willmar, Minn., helps young fathers become the role models many of them never had
WILLMAR -- When Mike Harrell was 18, he met a girl named Amanda who had a six-month-old baby boy.
He fell instantly in love -- with the baby and Amanda -- and has been a father to the now 3-year-old little boy ever since.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys that walked away," said Harrell, who turned 21 on Friday.
He and Amanda are now married and also have a 1-year-old son and another baby on the way. An infant daughter died about two months after her premature birth in 2010.
That's a lot of responsibility for a young man to shoulder, but Harrell said he's committed to being a good dad.
Through experience and a "father instinct," he now has the diapering, feeding and burping down pretty well.
By attending a new Teen Dads program in Willmar, he is also learning other parenting skills, like appropriate types of discipline and praise and how to deal with the inevitable stress that strikes parents of young children.
"It's just a really good group," said Harrell. "You can come in and be yourself and learn how to be a better parent."
Operated by Lutheran Social Service and funded by the United Way of West Central Minnesota, the new program may be the only one of its kind in the state, said Doug Doering, who has been meeting with three to five teen dads twice a month since the program started in January.
The free sessions are designed for fathers who are 16 to 22 years of age, although there is no bottom age limit. The meetings, which last about two hours, are conducted at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Buildings.
The goal is to give young fathers effective parenting and independent living skills.
Using a curriculum that focuses on a child's toddler years, Doering uses video, guest speakers and role-playing to draw the young men into the discussion.
Food is also provided to help increase the comfort level and -- Doering said honestly -- to provide another incentive for attendance.
A Teen Moms group has been active in Kandiyohi County for about 20 years, but Doering was warned it would be "tough to get the guys to come."
While teen moms are usually the primary caregivers, the role of teen dads is more uncertain. That can reduce their commitment to being an involved parent, said Doering.
Some teen dads are no longer in a relationship with their child's mother and may have limited visitation or none at all. If a teen mom is living with her own parents, the teen dad may not be welcome. And some teen dads simply walk away when they find out their girlfriend is pregnant.
But Doering said he is pleased with the number of teen dads who are invested in taking active roles in raising their children and attending the group sessions.
"I think they have fun when they're here," said Doering, who also makes sure the participants have information about pregnancy education.
"It's a place where guys can bond," said Doering. "They all have something in common: They're dads."
Harrell said young guys like him "usually don't talk about changing diapers," or other aspects of child-rearing when they hang out together. That would be awkward, he said.
But the Teen Dads group provides a comfortable environment for young men to learn, ask questions and share advice about being a father rather than "running away" from their responsibilities.
"It's the guys talking," said Harrell, who has encouraged other young dads to come to the Teen Dads sessions where there are "guys in the same boat as they are."
Harrell admits he was nervous about coming to the group the first time. He thought the others may be attending because they were forced to, or that they may mistakenly believe they already know how to raise a child.
But Harrell said most teen dads are just scared. "They don't know how to be a dad," he said. "There's a lot to learn -- especially at our age."
He said he's grateful for the guidance provided by Doering and the positive attitudes of the other young dads in the group. "They're there because they want to," said Harrell. "We want to learn."
Harrell said he wants to improve his parenting skills so that his children will be good parents.
Doering said fewer than half of the teen dads had strong male role models in their lives. The ultimate goal of the Teen Dads program is to "break that cycle," he said.
Another harsh fact is that about 50 percent of kids who are homeless also have children, said Doering, who also oversees the Lutheran Social Service youth housing program.
Harrell, who is still deeply troubled by the death of his daughter, admits he didn't set out to have such a large family at such a young age. "But I wouldn't change it for the world even though I'm so young," he said. "I love it. I honestly do."