Our guest this week is Jeff Zaugg of Minneapolis, MN, a former pastor of family ministries, a fatherhood advocate and host of the DadAwesome Podcast.
Jeff and his wife, Michelle, have been married for 17 years and are the proud parents of four daughters: Kiva (9), Ruthie (6), Raya (4) and Zara (2).
Jeff has been an outspoken advocate for fathers and is founder of Fathers for the Fatherless, a non-profit dedicated to: activate dads to lead with wonder—building intentional connection with their kids while experiencing God’s awesomeness together.
Jeff is also the host of the DadAwesome Podcast now with nearly 300 episodes. In fact he interviewed David Hirsch, 21CD founder and host of the SFN Dad To Dad Podcast. Here is a link to that interview episdoe #274: https://www.dadawesome.org/blog/274-2
We also learn about the Zaugg family RV travels (yes all six of them) all over the U.S. the past two years.
It’s a touching and uplifting story all on this episode of the SFN Dad to Dad Podcast.
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Website – https://dadawesome.org/
Website – http://www.venture.org/
Website – https://www.thereelhopeproject.org/about-us/
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeffzaugg/
Instagram: @dadawesome @fatherforthefatherless
DadAwesome Podcast Episode #101 – Just Another Day In Paradise – Jeff Zaugg Remembers his Dad Chuck https://dadawesome.org/101-2/
Tom Couch: [00:00:00] Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast, working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at HorizonTherapeutics.com.
Jeff Zaugg: Love that you get to be a dad even when you don’t feel it. Love that you get this gift of being a dad. It goes by… I mean, I’ve interviewed so many guests who are in a chapter of their kids are outta the house and they all look back and say, I wish I would’ve turned some dials of intentionality to show my kids with my actions, my calendar, my time, my pursuit, my energy. I wish I would’ve turned those dials and told my kids more often how much I love them.
Tom Couch: That’s Jeff Zaugg, a pastor, a fatherhood advocate, and host of the DadAwesome podcast. We’ll hear about Jeff’s many passions, including his [00:01:00] stressing the importance of being a good dad. That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Here now is the host of the Dad to Dad Podcast, and the founder of the Special Fathers Network, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast presented by the Special Fathers Network, a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs.
Thank you to those who supported the 21st Century Dads Dads Honor Ride 2023 campaign, which was a 3000 plus mile bicycle race from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. I was one of the four racers and it took us seven days, 19 hours, and 10 minutes to go from coast to coast. Special thanks to the following donors for contributing $1,000 or more. In alphabetical order they are: Ina Burd, Kim Duchossois. Jim Duran, Chaz Ebert, John Guido, Horizon Therapeutics, Scot Marcotte, Damien Navarro, Dick Reck, Barbara and Glenn Reed, Rotary Club of [00:02:00] Chicago, Warren Rustand, Don Stadler, Nick Topicha-Dolny, and UBS Financial Services. If you’ve not already contributed, please do so by visiting 21stCenturyDads.org. Your tax-deductible contribution will help keep our programs free to all concerned. I would really appreciate your support.
Tom Couch: So let’s hear now this intriguing conversation between Jeff Zaugg and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I am thrilled to be talking today with Jeff Zaugg of Minneapolis, Minnesota, father of four young girls, founder of Fathers for the Fatherless, and host of the DadAwesome podcast. Jeff, thank you for taking the time to do an interview for the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
Jeff Zaugg: David, I’ve been excited since we first met six months ago, so thank you. It’s an honor to be a part of this conversation.
David Hirsch: You and your wife, Michelle, have been married for 17 years, and are the proud parents of four daughters: Kiva 9, Ruthie 6, Raya 4, and Zara 2. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something [00:03:00] about your family.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, so I grew up not far from where you’re at, so Rockford, Illinois, and I describe myself as a Midwest mutt. Nine or 10 years northern Illinois, then northern Wisconsin – Eagle River, which is about as far north as you can go before you hit the upper peninsula of Michigan. I was there for about eight or nine years till I went to college, and then I’ve been for 20 years now in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. From Illinois, but I’ve kinda lived in those three states as maybe we’ll get to later. But I’ve been living in an RV for the past two years, traveling the country, which is another part of the craziness. But yeah, from Illinois. And yeah, grateful for the stories. I was homeschooled growing up, so we had adventures. We’d get our schoolwork done by 11:00 AM and then it’s adventure time and we had a lot of those as kids.
David Hirsch: So you said “we.” Did you have siblings when you were growing up?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, I’m the second oldest. There was four of us. There’s four of us in the family. And yeah, I love my siblings. The four of us got into some trouble, but also like really we grew and learned a lot from one another.
David Hirsch: That’s awesome. [00:04:00] So I’m curious to know, what does your dad do for a living?
Jeff Zaugg: He ran his own business, a general contractor. So he in Illinois, had three crews, owned a bunch of heavy equipment, built houses from doing the foundation work all the way through selling them. So he ran that business and then we actually… The reason we left Illinois was he bought 25 acres of land and we built a resort as a family. And by ‘built as a family,’ $2 per hour is what he paid us kids. And I joke about we could stuff insulation in the cracks, these really small cracks of these beautiful chalet cabins up on the lake in northern Wisconsin. And actually the first hour we didn’t get paid for; that was part of homeschool, the first hour. And then we got $2 an hour after that.
David Hirsch: Sounds like your dad had a formula and it worked.
Jeff Zaugg: It did.
David Hirsch: And if I remember the story, he packed it in, left Rockford, bought this property. It was a big risk, right? Moving this young family and starting a new venture.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah. My dad’s family was [00:05:00] all from northern Illinois, Rockford. My mom’s family was all from there. We had a wonderful kinda neighborhood, friend circle, church, homeschool group. And it was a huge risk going about a five-hour drive north to Wisconsin. An abandoned Jewish boys camp that was abandoned for 20 years. The cabins are all falling in. And those first six or seven summers we lived in basically a shack and rented a porta-potty while we rented out the cabin. So we’d move out of our house and live and camp and bathe in the lake and cook over the fire. It was a great story, but it was a huge risk financially to start from scratch with a Northwoods resort.
David Hirsch: And it had become known as the Zaugg’s resort?
Jeff Zaugg: That’s right. That’s right.
David Hirsch: Does it still exist?
Jeff Zaugg: So we sold a couple years ago after my dad passed away. We sold the majority of the cabins. It was a perfect timing for an exit. My mom kept the lodge, which is the largest of the homes, and she still, she actually, right now, she rents the lodge for six weeks every summer while she travels from family to family and bounces all over the place, [00:06:00] which is pretty amazing. We love it, we get our one week with her, actually a little more than that, that she comes and lives with us. Yeah, we still have the property up there, but we don’t own. It was seven properties. Now we own just the one up there.
David Hirsch: Gotcha. Anyway, thanks for sharing. Very interesting. So I’m curious now, how would you describe your relationship with your dad?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, my dad showed great love for all of us kids. He loved Jesus in his faith. Led us into learning about hard work. He wasn’t involved at all with our homeschool except for the work aspect of homeschool. My mom did the homeschooling. He was an athlete. He was a hard charger, so he pushed us. I learned to barefoot water ski when I was nine years old. That’s because of my dad. And those falls were hard as a little nine year old, falling at 42 miles an hour behind the ski boat. He did show more love for us kids when we succeeded. So when I had a good shooting percentage in a basketball game, when our soccer team did well, when we scored a hat trick on the ice in hockey, he showed more love to [00:07:00] us when we succeeded.
And that was a challenge growing up to try to earn love from your dad. But man he divvied out a lot of love because us kids succeeded a lot. He was all about the family, but he worked very hard. But then we worked hard as a family and we played hard. So it was a great relationship. But yeah, some difficult moments in there. But overall, so much love, so much respect. I am a dreamer today because my dad was a dreamer and took courageous steps towards his dreams, so he inspired me.
David Hirsch: In addition to the love for Jesus, the work ethic, the risk-taking if you wanna call it that, are there any other important takeaways, lessons learned from your dad, that you’ve tried to incorporate into your own fathering?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, he would look out for the person that was down and out. So from the guys that he hired for his crews to the way he cared for neighbors, or the person that lived at the other end of the lake that was a single mom to… He would build a deck for someone and not charge them for his time. He did care deeply for those who were in a hard place, or those that just needed a little lift. He would show [00:08:00] like way more than normal care using his construction skills, using his hard work, sharing what he had as far as taking people water skiing. So yeah, that was part of who he was. I know he smiles down today from heaven because he passed away a few years ago as I mentioned. When I live into that side of really looking out for not the convenient path, but maybe showing an extra bit of love for people along the way and kindness and generosity. Those were things that are true about my dad.
I lost my job six weeks before our first child was born. So here I was with no job, pregnant, and my pastor is still knocking, saying you should come be on staff. But I said yes. And the very first day, the first Sunday I was a pastor, I missed church my first Sunday because my daughter was born that morning. She was born my very first Sunday. So to the day of my first Sunday pastoring, I was so thankful. Seven years of being a vocational full-time pastor for this church. I learned so much. I [00:09:00] loved serving on the team. I loved seeing what God did there.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for sharing. We’re gonna circle back to Fathers for the Fatherless and DadAwesome because I know that’s your full-time focus. But I’m curious to know how did you and Michelle meet?
Jeff Zaugg: I returned from class. I was at Bethel College there in St. Paul, Minnesota. Returned from class. I was a junior. Came back to my townhouse. I had six roommates. And she was sitting in my living room waiting for me when I returned from class. She’s young. She’s a freshman. She’s hanging out with my roommates in our living room. I met her briefly. As soon as she left, I started asking follow-up questions. Who is she? How do you know her? Who is she dating? And within a week I had a first date with her. So I turned on my research and development. How do I research about her and develop a plan, right? And she said yes. And actually she thought I was calling to ask her to go on a date with one of my other roommates because sometimes you put together roommate dates and find each other dates. And about halfway through the phone call I was like, no, I’m your date. Like I’m calling for myself. And so [00:10:00] we waited about a year after that till we started dating. It was just a one-time date. And then I met her a couple other times before I was out of the country in Australia for bit. And anyways, that’s how we met though. Long story.
David Hirsch: I love it. Thanks for sharing. As you know, most of the interviews that we do for the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast have to do with special needs. And I’m wondering if there’s any connection directly or indirectly to the world of special needs.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah. Thanks. Thank you for this work. And to the dads listening, like my heart and my like, just the amount that I’m moved by every time… Any dad just brings their full heart to being a dad, I’m moved. But when I hear stories, when I see dads that are walking a journey, an unexpected journey, with just different challenges than maybe they expected when they first got married and thought about having kids, I just get emotional thinking about the love that I see poured out, the unconditional love. And I was a kid’s pastor for three of those years, children’s pastor, hundreds and hundreds of kids. And I just got to see week over week moments in [00:11:00] the hallways of our kids’ ministry at this church, moments of dads down on the knee, looking right into the eye of their kid who’s having a hard time.
And some of these families… I won’t mention their names now, but I just was like so impressed. So moved. I’m like almost crying right now, thinking about the love that I saw poured out. And, most of these moments were moments with kids that were on a different journey as far as special needs. And I saw a dad that just showed such love and such care and I’m like, I just wanna be more like you.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for sharing. And some people think that it’s a bad thing to have a child with special needs. It’s not something I would ask for. I think when you get to know people who have typical and atypical kids, every child is a blessing. And our role as parents is try to figure out how to help them reach their full potential, whatever their gifts are. Some kids are verbal, some kids are non-verbal. Some kids have physical challenges, some kids don’t.
Jeff Zaugg: Yes.
David Hirsch: Some kids have intellectual challenges, some don’t. And that’s the beauty of it, right? We’re all different. We don’t all look the [00:12:00] same. We don’t all think the same. And I think that one of the challenges of parenting is trying to solve the puzzle, if you will, right? Each one of our kids is a puzzle. And if you give every one of them the same thing, you’re not likely to have succeeded, right? Because we all need different things, right? We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. Thanks for the observation you made about the parents of special needs children.
What I’d like to do is focus on first Fathers for the Fatherless. What’s the backstory and how is that coming to being?
Jeff Zaugg: The backstory is that for years I heard about these cycling or running events that raise money for different causes and I always kinda rolled my eyes. Always kind of was like these people just love to ride their bikes and they’re saying it’s for a cause. They’re giving a tiny sliver to the cause, but they’re just out riding their bikes across the country or riding their bikes from Minneapolis to Chicago. I really did! Like even our primary partner that we serve, like I rolled my eyes thinking, come on. Like the real work is different [00:13:00] facets. It’s not through doing cycling challenges and biking events. And then after about a year of leading DadAwesome, the intentional fatherhood side, I realized there’s just a lot of men that need to be invited into a challenge. And sometimes that challenge does not look like getting on a plane and going to another country. Or that challenge isn’t always, hey I’m gonna be a one-to-one mentor of a child that doesn’t have a dad. Like sometimes the challenge actually needs to be smaller, bite-size. So one-time event and something with other men that is epic and hard and requires grit and can be celebrated.
And so it was actually like one day at church the idea leapt into my heart. I believe it was from the Holy Spirit, it was from God, to invite men into action to do a hard thing. I didn’t know what it was. As I started to think about it though, a 100-mile bike ride came. And I only biked.. 40 miles was my longest ride at the time. So it’s not like I had any experience. And so we, the first year, five years ago, had 26 guys say yes to riding 100 miles on behalf of the fatherless. And we did it on [00:14:00] Father’s Day weekend up in Minnesota. And we were like, could we raise $10,000?
What we found is it takes about three months to train for a century bike ride, perfect amount of time to really form some great friendships. So none of our rides are solo rides. They’re all, every guy’s put into a ride team. So Fathers for the Fatherless from day one, you’re on a ride team. We ride the same pace. It’s not a race. And we ride often a road with a big enough shoulder to ride 2-wide, and you’re having a conversation with the guy next to you without looking them in the eyes.
So David, the two of us could sit for a cup of coffee and we could have an hour and a half conversation right across the table. A lot of guys aren’t wired that way. A lot of guys want to look forward and to focus on their bike, not to focus on the guy next to them. And the heart-level conversation, the connection goes so much deeper.
So that first year, a dozen of those guys said it changed everything about local church. Now they walk into church, they spot other guys on the team. We shared this experience together. Many of these guys said, I now approach fatherhood different because my heart’s been broken for the [00:15:00] fatherless. I learned about these partners that we raised money for, and it’s actually changed how I show love to my kids because I was a part of this mission. For many of these guys it was the hardest thing that they had done since becoming a dad.
And the first couple years we required it was just for dads. That changed a few years in. We said anyone who is a man, 18 years and older can be a father figure and they can step in and be a father for the fatherless by doing this ride. So it’s open to all men now, the bike rides. And now it’s gone beyond bike rides to bike rides, triathlons, spartan obstacle course races. We did a trail run. We’re still talking about 100 holes of golf in one day. We haven’t done that one yet.
But the heartbeat though was like, how can we do a hard thing in sight of our kids? My little girls got to see their dad do a really hard thing, cheer for me, but they knew it was for a cause. It wasn’t just for my checklist of I want to be a guy who can do hard things and race. I did a team thing for a direct cause of helping kids that don’t have a dad.
And we raised money for local and global partners and we’ve averaged [00:16:00] about $1,000 per participant for the last five years, which is… I don’t know exactly the averages for other fundraising type bike rides, this or that, but I know it’s remarkable the generosity of our community. And we’ve raised now over three quarters of a million dollars for these causes because of bike rides, which is wild! And that’s taken our family into an RV all around the country because we do rides all over the country now.
David Hirsch: You’ve covered so much ground. I have to go back and dissect this.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: First of all, you know that I have a passion for endurance bike riding. So birds of the same feather. I can really relate to a lot of the things that you’re talking about. Who are the partners? You’ve raised a lot of money. Who are the beneficiary organizations?
Jeff Zaugg: Let me sidestep. David, I don’t share passion with you for endurance bike rides. [both laughing] I don’t. I did a double century, one of those bike rides. A couple guys, we rode it back. We did the century twice in a row one day. And I couldn’t feel my toes for a month.
David Hirsch: Oh, geez [laughing]
Jeff Zaugg: I care so much for the partners that I do this. I’d never worn spandex in my life. I had never worn clip-in bike shoes in my life. So this is brand new [00:17:00] territory. I still get nervous when I get a flat tire. I’ve done like 13 century rides now. I feel like a little kid, I’m gonna fail at this, swapping a tire out. So I’m still a rookie in the cycling world, but we care so deeply for our partners.
So we have a fixed global partner: venture.org. The ministry Venture, the non-profit, they’ve been doing work for 20 years. Their focus is in Southeast Asia. Without naming all the countries, they’re in the spots, they’re the hardest places in the world as far as living conditions. They have the least funding going to these nations of any places. When you look at Christian giving and generosity and benevolence, the least dollars are going to these countries and they’re the least reached with the gospel of people knowing about Jesus. They take those three factors and that’s how they’ve honed in on their seven countries they serve. And a few of the countries we can’t even mention because it’s in secret, the work we do. But we give to specifically these orphanages that are helping kids, that God is their heavenly Father and these kids are loved and [00:18:00] they’re loved by the people who work at these places. But it’s food, shelter, education, protection. That’s the global partner through venture.org.
And then our local partners, our local leadership teams prayerfully decide where those dollars are going. And in Minnesota, our largest flagship event, The Reel Hope Project is our partner. There’s 10,000 kids in the foster care system in Minnesota and 1000 of them, the parental rights have been terminated so they’re wards of the state. There’s no family member to go back to. And we help those kids find forever homes. The Reel Hope Project creates video reels. Three-minute little videos that shares their stories. I’ve learned adoptive parents are not allowed to meet the kids until they’ve committed to adopt the kids because it’s just too traumatic for kids to meet… to like go on a date with a family they might get adopted to. So they’re not allowed to meet until they make a commitment. And these kids’ files are horrific if you read the paper files of what’s happened to these kids. So these videos are a [00:19:00] beautiful supplement in the process. So now these families can see the very best sides of these kids. Their stories, their interests, their passions, their hearts, their eyes are sparkling. And these videos now have gotten… 130 kids have been adopted into forever homes because of The Reel Hope Project. So we funded the creation of these videos and these kids getting adopted.
David Hirsch: That is awesome. And it sounds a lot like a local organization here in the Chicago area called Let It Be Us. There was a woman, a neighbor, a friend, a decade ago. She’s a photographer. That was what her occupation was. And she asked me to go to breakfast and she said, I’ve got this idea. We need to create visibility for these kids in the foster care system in Illinois because people are unaware of who they are and it just seems like vague, right? That there’s this massive amount of humanity, these thousands and thousands of young kids in the foster care system. I want to take my skills, my photography skills, and take pictures.
Jeff Zaugg: Wow.
David Hirsch: And the Department of Human [00:20:00] Services in the state of Illinois said, we’re not taking pictures of young kids and putting them out there for people to see. They’re already vulnerable enough. That was the first reaction…
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: …the Department of Human Services had in Illinois. And then one thing changed, another thing changed, and all of a sudden, they’ve helped give visibility through photography and images like you were talking about, whether it’s videos or otherwise, and hundreds of kids have found forever homes as a result of the Let It Be Us organization.
Jeff Zaugg: Yes!
David Hirsch: Whenever I hear a story like the one you were just talking about with The Reel Hope Project, I’m like, that is incredible that these kids, not by any choice of their own in most cases, but just through the circumstances that the adults in their lives made…
Jeff Zaugg: That’s it.
David Hirsch: …they’ve been abandoned, right? All but abandoned. And I think it’s amazing some of the void or gaps that you’re able to fill with the work that you’re doing.
Jeff Zaugg: We’re so grateful. The side benefits of these 100-mile bike rides… There’s the friendships [00:21:00] formed, as I’ve already mentioned. There’s strength, being strong, doing things that require resilience, having grit. Like it makes us better in all the other spheres, right? So you start adding and stacking these different reasons that people would do a ride. And it’s felt needs, different things pull different guys in. Some people want to put on Instagram that they did a 100-mile ride for a great cause, and that’s okay if they wanna show off and say they did this thing. Like there’s all kinds of ways that let people dip their toe into the shallow end of the pool.
But after three months of training and after a 100-mile bike ride, you are changed. It changes us. And some of these people are now learning about these partners and it’s changing the trajectory of their families. We don’t have any direct yet knowledge of someone adopting a child who did a bike ride and learned about it. But that’s coming. That’s only coming.
David Hirsch: Yeah, absolutely. So venture.org. The Reel Hope Project there in Minnesota. Any other partners that you want to shine a light on?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, and The Reel Hope Project actually is now in five states. I don’t know their website off the top of my head, but they’re amazing. You can just Google and find [00:22:00] them. We have different partners at all of our different events. So we’ve had 13+ events.
One other that I would just mention, it’s a crisis pregnancy center doing a program for dads. And these dads have the courage to go get help and to choose the life of this child, this baby, and to choose to be a dad in their life. So it’s just like this beautiful story. They have a program that provides life coaching to these young rookie dads where these dads will write a vision statement for their fatherhood and put it on the wall. It’s like a plaque that they put on the wall. And they trained through, again, one-on-one life coaching. It’s amazing. Always Intentional Man. AIM is the name of that organization. I can get you the link for your show notes. They’re only in a few crisis pregnancy centers now, but I believe they’re gonna be in hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers, a program for young dads. And so we have to help raise money to hire one of their Spanish-speaking life coaches. And it’s remarkable the work they’re doing. There’s so many bright spots to this story. Very grateful.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for sharing. Always Intentional Man. [00:23:00] I’ve done some work with teen fathers, right? That’s what we’re talking about?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: These young men who have become fathers, in some cases inadvertently, as teenagers. There’s a soft spot in my heart for serving these young dads because they’re not adults themselves, they’re just kids. The male brain is estimated not to be fully formed until age 25. If you asked my wife, she was probably thinking it was probably age 50 or older. [Jeff laughs] But the point is they’re barely able to make decisions for themselves, let alone accept the responsibility of caring for a child or children or another adult for that matter. So anyway, my hat’s off to you.
That gives us a good understanding about what’s going on with Fathers for the Fatherless. There’s bike rides, there’s triathlons, there’s these events and various different locations coming up. The Twin Cities in Minnesota and White Plains, New York and St. Michael, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas, Oceanside, California. We’ll try to include some of that information in the show notes, so it’ll make it as easy as possible for [00:24:00] people to plug in or learn more about what you’re doing.
So let’s shift gears and talk about your intentional fatherhood efforts under the banner of DadAwesome. So let’s just get this straight. What does the phrase DadAwesome mean or not mean?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah. Thank you for asking. Often I feel “dad average.” [David laughing] Often I feel “dad awful.” That’s pretty often. I’ve got four little girls. “Dad angry” is a real emotion, sometimes being “dad angry.” DadAwesome is a direction, it’s not an arrival point. So DadAwesome is to say, you know what, it’s a gift to be a dad and I’m gonna bring my full heart. I’m gonna make sure my kids know that I love being their dad. That is DadAwesome. It’s funny, Dude Perfect. Dude Perfect. It’s certainly not Dad Perfect. DadAwesome is not Dad Perfect. It’s a direction, but it’s also a decision. Like I am pursuing this pathway [00:25:00] of becoming DadAwesome. And that is forever until I go to heaven someday as, who knows, a 91 year old, whatever age. It is a pursuit.
[Audio excerpt from a DadAwesome podcast]
Being a great father takes a massive amount of courage.
Instead of being an amazing leader and a decent dad, I want to be an amazing dad and a decent leader.
The oldest dad in the world gave you this assignment, which means you must be ready for it.
As a dad, I get on my knees and I fight for my kids.
Let us be those dads who stop the generational pass down of trauma.
I want encounters with God where he teaches me what to do with my kids.
I know I’m going to be an awesome dad because I’m gonna give him my all.
Welcome back to DadAwesome. My name is Jeff Zaugg. And today, episode 282. We’re headed into Father’s Day…
[Fade out of audio excerpt]
Almost 300 episodes of this thing. Like I’m learning so much. My heart is growing to want to learn and want to implement what I’m learning and the idea of doing [00:26:00] DadAwesome and making this a 5+ year journey. I told my girls from day one, if this is ever counter-helpful on the home front, you hit the eject button and I’ll do something else. So they have agreed year after year that DadAwesome, me leading this movement, is helpful on the home front. But I year over year, I’ve realized how much I have to grow. So I feel like I’ve given five, six years to this. I need to give another 20 years before I’m gonna at all feel like I’ve crested any kind of success. Like it is a long game. It’s a long game is the dad life.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I love it. I went back, I listened to the first interview, and then I think one of the more touching interviews that you’ve recorded is episode 101. entitled Another Day In Paradise, and it was a tribute to your dad, Chuck, who, if I remember correctly, had died literally the day before.
This is episode 101 of DadAwesome. And my name is Jeff Zaugg and I have decided to dedicate this episode to my dad, Chuck [00:27:00] Zaugg. Just yesterday morning, my dad Chuck went home to be with the Lord. He is now in heaven. He moved from paradise, the beautiful paradise of the north woods of Wisconsin up in Eagle River to perfect paradise with his heavenly Father in heaven. And I decided to change the plan for today. So the original plan was to start kind of a recap…
[Fade out of audio excerpt]
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, I am so thankful. The first 100 weeks of DadAwesome were the last 100 weeks of my dad’s life here on earth. I published episode 1 and the next day he rushed to the hospital and learned that he had brain cancer, lung cancer, so bad news. He was in the hospital for almost two weeks. He actually in the hospital watched the first two episodes because they were on YouTube. The first few episodes were on YouTube. He watched them from the hospital bed. Him being my dad, watching me deploy this little experiment around intentional fatherhood that I called DadAwesome.
And I spent so many [00:28:00] drives from Minnesota up to northern Wisconsin to be with him. The whole journey in talking about the dreams that I had and the risks that it would be for our family to go full-time into this. He processed all this out with me. I pressed in and he pressed in with me and we experienced such a beautiful last 100 weeks of his life that it was pretty easy to reflect and just turn on the microphone and just do a one take. This is my dad and his life, and celebrate him was actually… it was emotional. I’d lost him the day before, but it felt so effortless. That’s just who he was and that’s who I was in that 100 weeks leading up. So it just came out. And grateful that you listened though. Thanks for checking that episode out.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I know that we’re not supposed to be envious of other people, but as I remember listening to that, I’m envious of the relationship that you shared with your dad. Envious of the way that you were able to eulogize through this podcast. And I remember that there were 10 things you said I want to be like [00:29:00] my dad. These are the 10 things I want to be like my dad.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: And it just seemed, like you were saying, so natural. I don’t know that it was effortless, but they were very poignant. And for anybody who’s listening to this podcast, I would strongly recommend that you go back and listen to episode 101 of the DadAwesome podcast. It’s very moving. And one other thing that I remember about it was that you used the term “shiny eyes.” And the shiny eyes that your dad had.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: It was amazing.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, that, yeah. Just to go a moment on that. Thank you for pointing it out. I was inspired by a TED Talk about having shiny eyes. A classical music professor, years and years ago before I started DadAwesome, did this talk. If the people around you, if their eyes aren’t shining, you should be aware maybe it’s because your eyes aren’t shining because it’s contagious. My dad, Chuck, he inspired, he grew… he raised a family of kids with shiny eyes that had [00:30:00] big dreams. Big like the experienced love and got to go love other people and chase… My little sister played in the Olympics in Vancouver, on the hockey team. So there’s big success, but there’s also like we bring our full hearts to where we’re at. And that’s my dad. That’s my dad. And I wanna be that kind of dad who, when I look to my four little girls, their future husbands someday I want to see shiny-eyed people around me. And the only way I can do that is to bring my full heart into truly love being a dad versus grumble my way, complain my way through. So he modeled that excellently and I have received all the benefit.
Tom Couch: We’ll be back with more of the conversation on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast in just a few moments. But first, this quick message. Please help 21st Century Dads gather research on families raising children with special needs by having them complete the Special Fathers Network Early Intervention Parents Survey. A link to the survey can be found in the show notes. As a token of our [00:31:00] appreciation, each person, mom or dad, who completes the survey, will receive a Great Dad Coin. Thank you. Now back to the conversation.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, make it fun. Gamify the dad life as much as possible because it is a long game. And if you’re not making it fun, it’s exhausting, and there’s no scoreboard that says you’re winning. So you continue to wonder, is it even making a difference? Is it even making a difference? So if you don’t make it fun, take yourself too seriously, if you call yourself a failure as a dad, it’s probably not true. Just stay after it. Stay after their hearts. Stay on your knees alongside their bed to cuddle. Tell ’em an extra story. Keep the kitchen time fun, not yell. As soon as that “dad angry” starts to come up, make up a new game. It’ll help the “dad angry” subside a little bit.
David Hirsch: Let’s talk about this 2+ year journey you’ve been in, in an RV.
Jeff Zaugg: We had invitations coming in to go lead Fathers for the Fatherless events in other cities. We had an event in Colorado, an event in Philadelphia, an event in New [00:32:00] York, an event in Arizona. So we decided to borrow an RV and to do the first two events. So we in 23 days did 4,800 miles as a family in a little borrowed RV. Our girls got super sick during the trip. It was crazy. It was like so many reasons it should have gone horribly, and we should never again have set foot in an RV after that first trip. But what happened is two weeks later, I flew to New York to do that event alone. And if I’ve laid them side by side, doing Fathers for the Fatherless as a family versus flying away from my little girls to go lead this thing… I’m the only staff. I had the flexibility. Our girls were homeschooled actually at that time. And so we said, let’s try to lead this as a family versus do it separately. And it was an empty feeling sitting with my New York team talking about intentional fatherhood and talking about raising money to help fatherless kids and knowing that my little girls had a long weekend without their dad, that he’s gone doing this mission.
So we looked for an RV, found one, rented our house, hit [00:33:00] the road all within two weeks. It was crazy. It was a wild deal. Then we hit the road not knowing how long, and the how long has turned into 430 days of living in an RV over the last two years. And we’ve gone 23,000 miles and we do basically, we travel and do Fathers for the Fatherless events. I do DadAwesome meetups where I gather… It’s a listening tour. So I gather guys at a brewery, at a coffee shop, around a campfire, in a horse pasture, wherever. I gather guys, talk about intentional fatherhood. I don’t talk. I listen. And we have a conversation. I ignite some conversation and I listen. And then I do podcast recordings as we travel. I almost tracked you down when I was coming through northern Illinois, but it just didn’t quite work. That was like a year ago. So yeah the DadAwesome RV tour has been going strong and we’re setting sale in five weeks for the Pacific Northwest to do another round. This’ll be technically like our fourth RV tour for the organization.
David Hirsch: And Michelle and the girls all look forward to these?
Jeff Zaugg: See, this is the crazy part. They should not look forward to this. It’s hard [00:34:00] and we feel like we’re done with this chapter. Like we really feel like we want to be back in a neighborhood. But it’s a combo of invitations, now we own the RV. We have a string of podcast interviews and a couple events, and it’s let’s do one more. This last one was nine months. This next one’s three months, which makes it a little more doable. But it’s funny, when you’re homeless, when you’ve rented your house and you already have an RV, it’s like the momentum is, let’s go again.
And you see the value. The value is strong. Like every time we leave a city, which is about every two weeks we’re moving the RV, we write down a list of all of the ways we saw God at work. All the things were just like unexpected gratitude moments of oh my goodness, we saw this. We saw this. So these lists have become the norm. We fill it up as a family and we take a picture of it to digitize it. And it becomes a… It’s a remembrance practice. I use my calendar or my photos to remember. Because sometimes two weeks later you’ll forget things you saw. But we’ve made lists. Some of them though from Southern California, [00:35:00] we were there five weeks, there was over 80 things on this list. It’s two a day. Like two things a day are happening that were like unexpected. We got invited to this house for dinner, the RV broke down, this happened, ants took over the RV, but then this person helped with this. And it’s just like wild the amount of moments of, look what God did. He provided. He made a way. So we’ve lived our life in a posture of we’re in over our heads and it shouldn’t make sense to keep going, but we keep seeing so many ways that God’s provided for us that we just keep going.
David Hirsch: Yeah. It’s a very unique experience. My wife is not an RV wife. She’ll joke and say, that’ll be with your second wife.
Jeff Zaugg: Oh no!
David Hirsch: That’s not the only thing she said that about. There’s a list of about 20 or 30 things.
Jeff Zaugg: You just gotta know that list and stay away from it.
David Hirsch: Yeah. [laughing] One of our sons, our younger son Charlie, and then his girlfriend now fiance, bought an RV right at the beginning of the pandemic. Went on the road for nine months. Had such a good experience [00:36:00] they bought a second RV, fixed it up, and they’re just like, they’re the RV life. They just can’t get enough of it.
And I admire you for putting yourself out there, trying to reconcile your interest in addressing the issue of father absence, encouraging dads to be more present physically, emotionally, and spiritually in their family’s lives or kids’ lives. And then recognizing that if you’re gonna be true to yourself, true to your family, that you need to be doing these things simultaneously. You can’t just say, I’m gonna be gone for a week or a month at a time doing this important work and I’ll check in with you. You’re doing it together. And you’ve somehow found a way to do that. And I admire the commitment that you make, that Michelle makes, and the memorable experiences that you’re creating for these young impressionable girls of yours.
Jeff Zaugg: Hmmm, thank you.
David Hirsch: But I can’t help but to believe that as they get bigger, it’s gonna become more claustrophobic, right? Because the RV’s not getting bigger, [00:37:00] but the family’s growing.
Jeff Zaugg: Oh my goodness! The bunk bed situation. Our two middle daughters used to sleep head to foot on the same little twin bed They would share and kick each other. And that expired six months ago. There’s no more room. They grew too big. So here’s the trick. If you run out of beds in an RV, get a large king size pink sheet and just clip it to the top. So basically I made a princess castle with $12 sheets and some clips, and now she sleeps on the floor. But because it’s a princess castle – this is my second oldest – because it’s a princess castle she thinks it’s the best thing ever. And she’s on the floor. We ran outta beds. So she’s on the floor now.
David Hirsch: I thought you were gonna say you just buy a tent and the winner gets to sleep outside with dad or something like that. Okay we’ll have to circle back and see how this story unfolds over a couple of years. Anyway, thanks for sharing.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: So I’m thinking about advice now and I’m wondering if there’s any advice that you can offer a [00:38:00] parent, dad specifically, and whether it’s with a child with special needs or not.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah. The framework that I mentioned briefly is that it’s how we see the dad life directly gets passed into the hearts of our kids. So if we see the dad life as a gift… This is what I admired about these dads back to when I was a children’s pastor that had kids with special needs. Like I saw something in their eyes that they treasured their kids. They loved. They were not looking to other parents and saying, I’m embarrassed. I wish that my child wasn’t acting this way. I could see and I knew they loved. They brought their whole hearts. They see those kids as a treasure. And that framework I feel is just I wanna keep cheering dads on. Love that you get to be a dad even when you don’t feel it. Love that you get this gift of being a dad. It goes by… I’ve interviewed so many guests who are in a chapter of their kids are outta the house and they all look back and say, I wish I would’ve turned some dials of intentionality [00:39:00] to show my kids with my actions, my calendar, my time, my pursuit, my energy. I wish I would’ve turned those dials and told my kids more often how much I love them.
So that’s my encouragement to all dads is just let them know that you love being their dads. Tell ’em. I’ve heard like this liturgy of hey, do you see my eyes? And your kid says, yes I see your eyes. Do you know that I love you? Yes, I know. Like you go back and forth. So just like letting them know, man, I love you. I love that you’re my daughter. I love that I get to be your dad. You can’t take my love away. So it’s countering some of what I mentioned. My dad showed some conditional love, loved me more when my statistics in the basketball game were strong. I try to make sure my girls know now we do hard things. I still am raising resilient daughters, but they know that love is not tied to their behavior. Man, if they had a meltdown at the store, like it has not changed my love for them at all. So that’s probably my biggest encouragement.
And one-on-one time helps you amplify those moments if you get one-on-one time scheduled with your kids. [00:40:00] So looking at your calendar, the most important thing on your calendar has names, as one of my mentors says. And those names are, and he names his kids. Those are the most important things. I’m the only dad in the world that can be a dad to these kids. Other people can be an employee. Other people can run the non-profit, can do this or that. But I’m the only one that can do that.
So these are the things that are like top of mind. I don’t think it’s possible to keep bringing our whole hearts to our fatherhood journey alone. So brotherhood, friendships, people you can call on your worst day. I’ve got a guy that I’m doing 14 straight days. We’re doing a phone call every day right now around a challenge. So it doesn’t take long. Most of those calls are five to seven minutes, but I’m calling him every day to check in on this goal, this 14-day jumpstart in an area. So we need those kind of friendships. Who’s in your foxhole with you? Who’s your brother that’s like pushing you? Cycling without someone to draft from. If I have someone to draft with, it’s like a 14 mile an hour effort and I’m going 18 miles an hour because of the draft, right? You know how this works. It’s amazing and [00:41:00] the more, the better. You can’t have limitless friends, but do you have I call it plus three? Do you have three other dads that are just going after the same trajectory, same journey, same intentionality. Man, that’s a gift. So if you don’t have them, go out for a bike ride and find those friends.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Great advice. Thank you. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up.
Jeff Zaugg: Maybe my last, and this comes off the friendship piece. I think too many dads are on the sidelines saying, I’m struggling. I’m barely making it so I can’t help encourage other dads. So the ripple effect of a dad saying – it’s back to the plus three – but a dad saying, hey I found this book. I’m learning and growing. I’m gonna invite three other dads to join me and I’m gonna start a little dad group. We’re gonna sit around the campfire and talk about it. Like very few dads are stepping into leadership to help in the topic of intentional fatherhood, because we all feel like we’re screwing up and we all feel tired and exhausted. And we all [00:42:00] feel like who am I to lead a group around intentional fatherhood? And I say, throw that out the door. Like we need guys to just say, plus three, I’m gonna grow and I’m gonna grow by gathering other dads. We just need more of that, like the cascading effect of a dad who says, I’m gonna find a book on fatherhood or a podcast, I’m gonna grow, pull some guys together to sit at a Panera Bread and talk about it. Like, it’s not rocket science, but very few guys… I think 1% from my gathering of men around the country. I think 1% of dads take initiative to be a leader in the intentional fatherhood space. And we need more than 1% to have a cascading effect to help kids and families be strengthened. And so that’s why I admire you, David, is you’re clearly in the 1% and you’ve given decades to it. It’s just not common.
David Hirsch: Yeah. You’re onto something. I don’t think I thought of myself as like an extraordinary dad. I just wanted to be a better dad than I experienced with my own dad. And from my perspective, it had to do with breaking the cycle of father absence.[00:43:00]
Jeff Zaugg: Yes.
David Hirsch: I had mentioned that I was a little bit envious of the way you described your relationship with your dad and how you admired him and wanted to be more like him. I can’t say that I’m not proud of that, but the pendulum swung pretty wide in one direction. And maybe I’ve overcompensated a little bit in my own experience as a father. But I think you’re onto something as it relates to encouraging dads regardless of what they think of themselves or where they find themselves on the journey to err on the side of engaging, err on the side of being intentional and don’t try to go it alone. That’s the neanderthal way of thinking about things. You’re gonna figure it out yourself. And it’s challenging enough to get from point A to point B in your vehicle without GPS, right? Just trying to figure it out on your own. And when you try to apply that same problem-solving approach to something more consequential, how to be a dad in some cases, how to be a dad to a child with special needs, you’re gonna figure it out on your own, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, right? You’re not gonna bring [00:44:00] everything you are capable of bringing and who’s gonna suffer? It’s gonna be your child. So if you do have the best interest of your children in mind, I think being in the company of like-minded individuals, like-minded dads, is essential. And it’s not a weakness, it’s a strength to be able to reach out to others and be brothers in arms if you will for the journey. So thanks for sharing.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, that’s good.
David Hirsch: So let’s give a special shout out to our mutual friend, Chris Moore, for helping introduce us.
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah. Grateful.
David Hirsch: If somebody wants to learn more about your work, the podcast, the fundraisers, contact you, what’s the best way to do that?
Jeff Zaugg: Yeah, the websites are easy to find, but Instagram has been a more active place that we post updates. So @DadAwesome on Instagram, @FathersForTheFatherless, all spelled out. Those two Instagram handles are a great spot. Just ongoing updates and videos and content.
David Hirsch: I will be sure to include that as well as the website, your email, your LinkedIn profile, information on [00:45:00] venture.org and The Reel Hope Project in the show notes. It’ll make it as easy as possible for people to follow up.
Jeff Zaugg: Thank you again, David. Really appreciate you.
David Hirsch: Jeff, thank you for your time and many insights. As a reminder, Jeff’s one of the dads who is part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax-deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support. Jeff, thanks again.
Jeff Zaugg: Thanks so much.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with [00:46:00] special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to Facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad.” Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch.
Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about [00:47:00] Horizon Therapeutics at HorizonTherapeutics.com.