- Dad Guild playground playgroup at Fort Ethan Allen Park in Colchester
If you're organizing an outing with a group of dads and their young kids, take it from me: Nothing beats a nature walk. It's free, everyone gets some exercise and fresh air, and there are lots of things to talk about.
I led one such walk at the Ethan Allen Homestead in April, with a dozen fathers and their 14 children. The outing was through Dad Guild, an organization I started in 2018. On our walk, the fathers spoke with one another about a variety of topics, including the frustrations of navigating COVID-19 while raising children who couldn't be vaccinated, the challenges of becoming a new parent and meeting new people, and, when kids started climbing trees, the concept of healthy risk-taking.
Those conversations quickly turned to respecting wildlife as we approached an old well.
"Wow, that's a lot of snakes," remarked one father, staring at a squirming mass of more than two dozen legless reptiles.
Then different dads started sharing observations with the group: "Let's think about how the snakes are feeling right now with all of us surrounding them."
"See how that snake is coiled up? What do you think they're trying to tell you?"
"Notice how there's so many snakes in this well? What do you think they're doing there?"
For several minutes, the group got up close and personal with the local wildlife while asking tons of questions and thinking about the possible answers. When the children started getting a bit too comfortable and a few of the snakes started looking distressed, I knew it was time to leave.
"Hey, folks, let's give these snakes some space and head out onto the trails," I said. "Who's ready?"
My 5-year-old daughter, Coraline, immediately looked up from the snakes and yelled, "Let's go, Dad Guild!" as she sprinted ahead of the group, toward the forest.
I started Dad Guild after noticing a lack of father-specific support, community and programs in the greater Burlington area. What started out as a group of a couple dozen dads meeting awkwardly at playgrounds has turned into a 501c3 nonprofit organization with a network of nearly 600 fathers. An average of 100 of those dads actively participate in some way every month.
Dad Guild seeks to support dads and shift societal norms around fatherhood engagement. We want to dismantle norms around gender equity in parental roles and ensure that all non-birth partners get the support they need to raise healthy children.
We know that one type of "dads' group" isn't going to meet the needs of all fathers on their parenting journeys, so we offer multiple avenues for connection. Over the past three years, Dad Guild has provided more than 500 hours of programming. We've run playgroups, book groups, workshops, Zoom check-ins, volunteer opportunities, intentional peer support groups, newsletters, dads' night out opportunities and walks. We also maintain an active Facebook group.
The community response has been huge. In addition to the growing number of dads in our organization's fatherhood network, we've also established relationships with more than 40 community partners and generated statewide interest in our work from other communities. Mothers are reaching out to us, too, expressing a desire to get their spouses involved.
The need is there, and we're trying to keep up with it.
For the first three years, Dad Guild was a volunteer-run organization. I typically spent 15 hours a week on it, along with a supportive board of directors, while I held jobs at Howard Center and, most recently, the Janet S. Munt Family Room to pay the bills. At the Family Room, I've worked with a large number of fathers who have multiple barriers in their lives, including a lack of housing, a history of trauma, legal issues and/or addiction. I've learned a lot about the systems and structures in our society that could be strengthened to better support fathers from all backgrounds.
But as Dad Guild grows, juggling both of my roles is proving to be too much. At the end of May, I'm resigning from my position at the Family Room to focus entirely on Dad Guild. I'm filled with anxiety but also recognize the need for building systems and structures that actively encourage father engagement.
Here's what's next for Dad Guild.
- Financial sustainability: To ensure that this organization is around for years to come, we need to increase awareness of our work and find additional revenue streams. Without the funding to pay for this work, it won't be possible.
- Statewide coalition: We've had conversations with a handful of partners about creating a statewide fatherhood coalition, one that allows folks to share resources and perspectives, as well as to collaborate on innovative strategies that support non-birth partners from all backgrounds.
- Resource creation: We want our website to be a destination for all types of resources related to fatherhood, accessible without needing to actively participate in programming.
- Strengthening partnerships: There are a lot of organizations whose work intersects with ours, including those focusing on suicide prevention, treatment for substance abuse and stopping domestic violence. We look forward to collaborating with community partners to work on these issues.
- Expansion into other communities: We've gotten requests to replicate what we're doing outside of Chittenden County. We're excited to help others develop strategies for increasing father engagement in their own communities.
I'm feeling a wide range of emotions related to my upcoming professional transition. On one hand, I'm incredibly excited to be in a place where I can devote 100 percent of my professional energy to growing this organization. On the other hand, I'm pretty anxious about needing to make enough money to help support my family of four — six, if you include the cats.
One thing is certain though: I believe in the work that Dad Guild is doing. We're on a path to make Vermont one of the nation's leaders for fatherhood support and engagement. Here's to the road ahead.