A play program for fathers and their young children launched in Saint John, N.B., this fall is the second project in the world to have started under an international Anglican-Roman Catholic partnership for mission.
“Dads & Tots,” which began as a pilot project October 13, will see a small group of fathers gather to play with their kids, aged 3-5, Saturday mornings under the guidance of two parenting mentors. The goals of the program are to help fathers—especially, but not necessarily, single ones—from some of the poorest areas of the city build their parenting skills, says the Rev. John Paul Westin, rector of St. John’s Anglican Church (also known as the Stone Church), where the sessions will initially be held. It’s also hoped the program will assist them in making connections with other dads, he says.
The project has its origins in a 2016 summit organized by the International Anglican and Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), a group formed in 2001 to foster mission work between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic church. At the 2016 meeting, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis commissioned 19 pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops from around the world to undertake collaborative projects for helping people on the margins of society. The first such project, a scholarship program for needy students in Malawi, was launched in September 2017.
Last year, a couple with a family connection to the Stone Church, Fawn Wilson White and her husband, Ken White, approached Westin and Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders in New Brunswick about doing a project under IARCCUM. David Edwards, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Fredericton (which covers the entire civil province of New Brunswick) and Robert Harris, Roman Catholic bishop of Saint John, liked the idea. A joint committee of the two dioceses eventually settled on working with fathers and children from the Waterloo Village and South End, two especially impoverished areas of Saint John.
According to a 2017 report by the Human Development Council, an organization concerned with social issues in the city, 45% of the children in Saint John’s Ward 3—which contains the South End—live in poverty, compared to the national average of 17%. Half of all New Brunswick’s children in single-parent families live in poverty, compared to one-tenth of children in families headed by couples.
On Oct. 1, 2018, Edwards and Harris signed a memorandum of understanding, officially launching the project, which has also been endorsed by the Anglican and Roman Catholic co-chairs of IARCCUM.
The committee chose to work with fathers and their children, Westin says, partly because fathers are relatively underserved by existing support services—despite their recognized importance in the lives of children.
“We’ve found that a lot of the problems socially here have to do with absent fathers, and fathers kind of fall between the cracks often in different programs,” he says. “So we just wanted to give them a simple way of getting together and having time to really learn to play with their children…Hopefully the fathers will connect with one another, and maybe will develop friendships as well, and have more of a network of support.”
Research compiled by psychologists Charlie Lewis and Michael Lamb shows relationships between the parenting styles of fathers to the IQ performance and language development of their children, and the level of involvement of fathers in their children’s lives to their likelihood of having a criminal record by age 21.
There’s a need among many underprivileged fathers to learn better how to interact with their children partly because often they themselves never experienced healthy interaction with a father when they were children, Westin says.
For some, he says, “Just knowing how to play with children is kind of a foreign concept because mostly [they] as children were just stuck in front of a TV or some kind of a game…They don’t really know how to connect because they’ve never been taught that,” he says.
With a six-week pilot project now complete, organizers hope to run four series of Dads & Tots in 2019, starting in February.
Sessions are fairly unstructured, Westin says: participants arrive and are invited to make use of toys and reading material. Then they all make a light lunch together. The program is free, and participants may take part in more than one six-week series if they wish. Present at the sessions, in addition to the two mentors, will be committee member Leslie Allan, a specialist in early childhood development.
The project is starting small, with six fathers. But it can be increased in size if necessary, Westin says. A donor has already stepped forward to pay the modest cost of the pilot project, he says, and fundraising is anticipated to cover costs in 2019.
Note: This article has been updated with new information since it appeared in our December 2018 print edition.