In this Special Fathers Network Podcast introduction, hear host David Hirsch tell why he feels fathers are so important. David also explains the mission behind the Special Fathers Network that of fathers helping fathers.
Dad To Dad #00 – Meet Dad to Dad host, David Hirsch
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch, founder of the 21st century dads foundation and creator of the special fathers network, a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers, raising children with special needs. Thanks for taking the time to listen to the Special Fathers Network introductory podcast. The mission of the 21st Century Dad’s Foundation is improving the lives of children by empowering and inspiring dads to be present physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually. The primary objectives of the Special Father’s Network podcasts are to recruit Special Fathers Network mentor fathers, to provide younger fathers, raising kids with special needs, with valuable insights, and better equip them on the journey ahead; to inspire all dads to be more fully engaged in the lives of their children; and to promote inclusion and acceptance for those with all types of abilities.
We’re interviewing some of the world’s most inspiring fathers whose stories will forever change the way you think about parenting and embracing the possibilities. Not all the interviewees enjoy celebrity status, like the actor Joe Mantegna, or legendary marathon and triathlete Dick Hoyt, but each of these interviews will help you be a better person.
As some brief background. I’m the father of five amazing typical kids ranging in age from 21 to 28. I married my high school sweetheart 35 years ago. I’m a native Chicago and, and I’ve had a successful career as a financial advisor. When I was six years old. My parents divorced. I didn’t understand why my dad left, remarried and became a dad to someone else’s kids.
The next seven years were somewhat traumatic. I remember the police responding to calls of domestic disputes. Getting dragged in court regarding child support and custody issues, living with my grandparents for awhile, and moving to different schools. I give my mom a lot of credit for raising me and my younger brother on her own as a Chicago public school teacher. That’s one of the reasons I have so much respect for single moms.
I’m sharing this personal story not for pity, but to emphasize the point that father absence isn’t some abstraction or just an inner city problem. It’s real and its impact can be generational. In fact, father absence knows no gender, geographic, or socioeconomic boundaries. It exists in urban, suburban, and rural communities across America and around the world. For the record, and for this, I thank God I was very fortunate to have a father like relationship with Sam Solomon, my maternal grandfather.
I first became aware of the scope and scale of the issue of father absence in the fall of 1996. I was 36 years old and we had just had our fifth child in seven years. In addition to working full time, I was wrapping up a three year commitment as one of 50 fellows involved with the WK Kellogg foundation. As the fellowship was winding down, I was feeling a lot of pressure at home and some at work, due to the nine months I’d committed to the fellowship over the previous three years. I was determined to redirect a good portion of my time and energies to being a better father, as well as husband. In all truth. What really propelled me to look for fatherhood resources was fear. Fear that I might not have a strong relationship with my children. Fear that history would repeat itself. Fear that the cycle of father absence would somehow undermine my relationship with my kids like it did with me and my dad as it did with my dad and his dad. I was determined to break the cycle of father absence and not pass this baggage down to my children. While looking for fatherhood resources, I was introduced to Dr. Ken Canfield, author of Heart of a Father, and founder of the national center for fathering in Kansas.
As Dr. Canfield explained it, four to 10 or some 24 million kids are growing up in father absent homes across America. He also said that an estimated 500,000 plus kids are born each year without even a dad’s name on their birth certificate. Consider that in the 15 minutes it takes to do this introduction, 120 kids will be born across the US if nothing changes, on average, 48 of them will grow up without their fathers. That translates into just over three per minute, 193 per hour, and a jaw dropping 4,640 born every day who will grow up without their dads. What type of experience can they expect?
Children from father absent homes are four times more likely to grow up in poverty and nine times more likely to drop out of high school. Sadly, more than 3,200 US youth drop out of high school every day. Pathetically the US ranks 22 out of the 27 developed countries for the percentage of youth who graduate from high school. 71% of high school dropouts are from father absent homes. 75% of all crimes are committed by high school dropouts and 85% of youth in prison also come from father absent homes.
There is a perception that father absence has a problem confined to the inner cities and only impacts minorities. Well, it’s true. Father absence strikes minorities in high percentages, in absolute numbers, there are two times the number of white versus black, and one and a half times the number of white versus Latino kids growing up in father absent homes.
Our society has been shifting away from families and marriage for decades, and the pressures from these cultural choices are mounting. Consider that in 1972 percentage of pre marriage births was 11%. Today it’s 41%. Prior to meeting Dr. Canfield, I was totally unaware that father absence is one of the root causes for what ails society. As it turns out, no one else I knew was aware of the scope or scale of the problem either.
I was compelled to take action and did so by organizing a community leaders briefing. In February of 1997 I invited Dr. Canfield and a handful of others to speak. We were pleased at 120 leaders attended, affirming the message about the need for more involved fathers, and the Illinois Fathers Initiative: the country’s first, statewide, not for profit fathered organization was born. Within the first four months, we had more than 30,000 1st through 12th grade students write essays to the theme, “what my father means to me.”
We recruited 400 volunteers to help evaluate the essays and pick four winners to be recognized at the Chicago Cubs baseball game on father’s day. The message received back from those volunteers was overwhelmingly positive and so much so that in May, we decided to reprint 24 the essays, two per grade, and in the children’s own handwritten words in a booklet so that the poignant stories could be shared with a much wider audience.
We sold and distributed 5,000 copies of this booklet entitled What My Father Means To Me. I’d like to share a short excerpt from just one of the essayists, Donna, an 11th grader. As you’re listening, imagine you’re one of the dads hearing what your child has to say about you.
Donna: “For years, I’ve been a foster child. I have never known the love of father and daughter share. There was no one to help me with school. No one to help me at all. As a child, I had no one to look up to. I had no one to call dad. I have a dad now. He took in a girl who had nowhere to go. Not only was she a stranger, she was a stranger with a past. She was me. He has stood with me through moments of hell. He gave a girl on the brink of death, a chance to experience life. I call him dad.
The next thing I knew, Harpo studios wanted seven of the students to read their essays for a special father’s program to air in June, and bam. There I was on the Oprah Winfrey show along with my 89 year old maternal grandfather being interviewed by Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey: “This is David Hirsch, founder of the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative. See, I think fathers don’t know. I’ve done lots of shows about deadbeat dads and all those reunion shows. The message over and over again from the men. I think they don’t realize the void and the hole that they leave.”
David Hirsch on Oprah: “Children benefit dramatically from the involvement of a positive, now adult”
David Hirsch: I owe a debt of thanks to Dr. Canfield for educating and inspiring me to get involved. The big takeaway from the essay contest experience in his book was the most direct way to reach the heart of the father is through the words of his children.
Over the past 21 years, IFI an all volunteer organization with relatively no overhead, has collected more than 400,000 essays, has engaged 600 to 800 volunteers annually and has raised more than $4 million, mostly through special events, and without federal funding to support the cause.
In 2015 God called me to make a bigger commitment. That calling morphed into creating the 21st Century Dad’s Foundation, and doing an endurance bike ride from Santa Monica to Chicago to honor fathers.
Journalist: “24 million kids across America are growing up without dads. David Hirsch wants to change that, so he rode from Santa Monica to Chicago to support local charities that help dads become more active in their kids’ lives.”
David Hirsch: “The purpose for the ride is to honor dads, to raise awareness for the local charities, fatherhood charities along the way, and to raise some resources for those charities.”
Journalist: So he rode, and rode, and rode some more.”
David Hirsch: For the record, I had done some bike riding as a triathlete, but had only written 100 miles once in my life. “Dad’s On a Ride 2015” was a 21 day, 2,300 plus mile ride, loosely along the iconic route 66. I averaged 112 miles a day every day for 21 days, arriving on schedule, 19 of the 21 days, only being delayed twice: once by weather, and then again by fatigue. Nine other riders accompanied me for one to three days. Six of us rode into US Celluilar Field on Father’s Day, for an on-field presentation before the Chicago white Sox baseball game.
“Dads On a Ride 2016” was also a 21 day, 1,400 mile ride from Boston to Chicago. 38 riders participated, 10 rode for a week, and 2 of us, including my friend Nick to Pika Doni, a father of four from Warsaw, Poland, rode the entire distance.
“Dad’s On a Ride 2017” was a nine day, 958 mile ride around Lake Michigan. 2 of us, my friend Nick from Poland, and I rode the entire distance.
Podcast Producer: One person who joined David Hirsch for all of these honor rides was Lawton, Wilke Wilkerson, a 92-year-old World War II vet, and one of the original Tuskegee airman. Though he didn’t ride, he was there for all three of these rides and he has some interesting thoughts to share.
Wilke Wilkerson: David is the one person who puts his body where his mouth is. He doesn’t just talk to the game. He’s out there doing it. So when it came time for him to do this for his venture, riding from Santa Monica back to Chicago in 21 days, I was invited to go along with him and I went with him and, uh, his daughter and where we left in the pier and came across for the most part on route 66.
One time. We were somewhere along the way, I try to remember exactly where it was, but a storm was brewing and they rolled, by the way, little rain didn’t soften the ride in the rain, whatever. He rode the whole way. Well, there was lightning. I didn’t ride the bike. I didn’t ride a bike. I rode in the chase crew. And so we went back along with the route and picked him up much to his dismay, cause he didn’t want to stop riding because there was lightning out there. He finally relented and we picked him up and took him into the hotel where we’re staying for that night. The next morning when it came time to go, we martial our forces and we’re getting ready to go and he says, take me back to where you picked me up.
He made us take him back to the exact spot that we picked him up. And it started from there because when he got on the other end, he wanted to say, be able to say in total truth that he wrote every step of the way.
David Hirsch: During the past year, 21st Century Dad’s Foundation has shifted its focus to indoor riding, which virtually anyone can do, requires no expensive equipment or training, and just a one hour time commitment. We call these events “The Cycle to End Father Absence,” and the first 10 have been held at local CycleBar premium indoor riding studios in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Hoboken, Maclan, and Portland. Riders, also known as “dadvocates.” ride for 50 minutes and collect donations from family and friends.
More recently, the 21st Century Dad’s Foundation has directed its efforts to creating the Special Fathers Network, a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Fathers with experience, make themselves available to talk or meet with young fathers who are at the beginning of their journey raising a child with special needs. The mentor fathers don’t provide medical or legal advice, but simply relate their own experience to help the mentee father to see the road ahead and around the corner, so he’s more well-equipped on the journey ahead to help his child reach their full God given potential.
We all have a role to play in strengthening families and achieving better outcomes for all youth. For fathers, be more intentional about being present physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. For mothers, do whatever you can to make sure the father of your child is present. And if he is no longer involved, be sure to surround your child with positive adult male role models. For men and women without kids, consider being a mentor or adoption.
I hope you enjoy listening to the special fathers network podcasts, which can be found on Spreaker, Google play, iTunes Apple podcast, and other platforms. Please share the Special Father’s Network Podcast with family, friends, and in particular, those raising children with special needs. We welcome your feedback and are always looking for compelling stories.
In closing, it’s my hope our generation’s enduring legacy will be that we recognize the impact of father absence, and we took the time to do something about it. Happy listening.