Fathers find faith, advice, support and community connections at Divine Alternatives for Dads Services, or DADS.

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Will Hughes had a history of substance abuse and incarceration when he walked in the red door of the office on Rainier Avenue South. He’d heard folks there could help him get visitation with his children.

Zakary Fike was “broke, busted and living in a trailer” when he sought out the South Seattle nonprofit for help with a parenting plan for his then 3- and 5-year-old boys.

John Hamer, who’d previously worked for a newspaper and run the Washington News Council, was looking for a place to share his communication skills when he heard the founders of Divine Alternatives for Dads Services, or DADS, speak at an annual banquet.

For more information

Divine Alternatives for Dads Services

5709 Rainier Ave S., Seattle, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 206-722-3137 or www.aboutdads.org

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All three found what they were looking for at the nondenominational, faith-based agency.

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But to their surprise, they also found some things they had not been looking for: healing, forgiveness, love and a community that transcends age, race, class and even political leanings. Each Wednesday morning and Thursday evening, a group of 25 to 50 men from ages 17 to 90 attend the support group, where they talk about their lives, their struggles, their efforts to know God and be better men.

“We didn’t set out to do a big thing,” said Marvin Charles, 61, who started the organization with his wife, Jeanett Charles, 50, almost two decades ago after they got clean and sober and figured out — by themselves mostly — how to meet the court’s legal requirements and reclaim their children from Child Protective Services (CPS).

Their organization — which runs on donations and does not charge clients — is predicated on the idea that fathers are important and their children do better with them in their lives.

“The dad’s role in the home and in the community is to bring a strong presence of safety and unity,” Jeanett Charles said. “We tell them to push past the drama with the mama and just love on your children. All they have to do is show up — at school, during recess, at lunch, and say, ‘Hey, fella’ or ‘Hi, sweetheart’ and that presence softens the hearts of their children and boosts their morale.”

Marvin Charles, whose story has been told, in part, by The Seattle Times, said he and Jeanett simply wanted to pass on what they’d learned about navigating the bureaucracy that keeps families apart, when they discovered they’d hit on something big instead.

By sharing personal truths as well as advice, they built bridges between people and created a community of fathers who lean on each other and share strength.

“It’s strange when I look back,” said Hughes, 48, who is in corporate IT at Costco and serves as chairman on the board of the nonprofit that once helped him.

“I had a stepdad who had racist ideas about white men, and to some extent, I carried that forward. Before DADS, I had never embraced or hugged a white man in my life, and now I have walked with these guys, and we have a relationship.”

Fike, 36, said that as a white man from Lynnwood, he had also been raised with some biases and stereotypes about race he wasn’t even aware of until DADS.

“Then I found myself in Rainier getting loved on by African Americans and that opened up my heart,” Fike said. “I began to be able to look at people and see them for who they are.”

So how did an organization that was intended to help fathers reconnect with their children turn into a support group for men of all ages and social classes?

Perhaps Hamer’s story can shed some light.

He first learned about DADS when he heard Marvin and Jeanett Charles speak at a Seattle Pacific University function while he was still working. After he retired, he called Marvin Charles, who invited him for a chat.

When he got there and saw the interaction between the founders and their clients and then had the chance to sit in on the support group, he discovered — like other men before him — that there was some kind of power in that room.

Not only did he want to hear other people’s stories, he found himself wanting to share his own.

“The conversations we have every week are the kinds we should be having across this country,” Hamer said. “We talk about race and class and privilege and implicit bias. We talk about the power of God, and we share our candid stories, face to face, which is something that most men don’t get to do.”

It sounds kind of corny, said Marvin Charles, but clients — and prospective mentors, donors and others — who attend the weekly men’s support groups held at the DADS’ office, realize at some point that they all fight many of the same battles.

“We all struggle to be better husbands and better fathers and better people,” Marvin Charles said. “And then we see that those struggles are part of the journey and the journey is easier when we do it together. ”

How DADS began

Marvin Charles’ biological mother, Doris Brooks, was 14 years old and a ninth-grader at Seattle’s Washington Junior High School when he was born. For reasons she never fully understood, her mother gave Marvin up for adoption when he was 6 months old and she was away at school.

Although he grew up in a home not far from Brooks’ Central District residence, the two did not meet again until four decades later, when she contacted adoption consultant Karen King, who quickly found Marvin.

Marvin and Jeanett Charles had already lost six children to the state’s foster-care system and Marvin was on the verge of leaving their newborn daughter on the steps of a hospital In 1998. But he couldn’t walk away.

“I couldn’t do to my child what had been done to me,” said Marvin, who had spent time in the foster-care system after the death of his adoptive mother.

In a moment of clarity, which he describes as a result of both a spiritual awakening and a nudge from the judge overseeing their child-welfare case, he and Jeanett decided to marry, get clean and sober and commit to reuniting their family.

Over the next few years, they hunkered down, got jobs and they learned, mostly by trial and error, how to deal with dependency court and caseworkers.

 

Within three years, their children were returned to them, and they’d earned the Atlantic Street Center’s Family of the Year award.

“We started asking how can we use what we’ve learned the hard way to help other people,” Marvin Charles said. The couple launched DADS with the help of a $15,000 grant.

The front office

When men initially come in, it’s usually because they are having trouble with getting visitation, handling child support or dealing with the mother of their children.

Jeanett Charles is an expert at dealing with state services and bureaucracy.

In an average year, she helps approximately 250 new clients get hooked up with social services, understand what exactly the court needs to grant visitation and how to behave with caseworkers and judges. She assists with appeals to the state’s division of child support for adjustment that will allow struggling parents to support themselves and meet their financial obligations to their children.

In the nearly 20 years she’s been doing this, she’s learned that she sometimes has to get tough.

“You say you want to spend time with your kids,” she tells her clients. “Have you got your own place? Have you got a job? No? Go get a job so I can work with you or grow up! I hear you coming in here and talking about how you were cheated here, and cheated there and this isn’t fair and poor me; not once have I heard you talk about your children.”

A couple of years ago, DADS — which last year had a budget of $419,000 — reached out to the state Division of Child Support, with which the group now partners to provide parental services, to get the numbers on how the program was working.

An analysis of 2,700 DADS cases between 2002 and 2013 found that:

• Parents working with DADS repaid their child support at a rate that is 11 percent higher than their non-DADS peers.

• Their reliance on state aid decreased.

• In total, they decreased their back child support over that decade by $10 million, according to DADS’ Director of Operations Jon Fritzberg.

“I knew we did great work,” said Fritzberg, who previously worked at United Way of King County, “but when I saw the numbers, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we have a tiger by the tail.’”

The backroom

On a recent Wednesday morning, more than 30 men, some in casual clothes and others in suits, crowd into the backroom where black carpet and tile cover the floor, doughnuts and bagels and fresh fruit are piled on a table, and pictures of past clients, and their children, adorn the walls.

They shake hands, embrace and call each other “brother” as they take their seats on chairs, couches, even the stairs that lead up to the offices and conference rooms.

Though Marvin Charles describes the organization as faith-based and not religion-based, the men’s support group started as a Bible study about 13 years ago, he said.

The first meeting was attended by Marvin Charles, his mentor and seven clients, and it grew as those first attendees kept coming back and inviting their friends and as new clients and volunteers, with time to spare, started hanging around and listening.

“Something happens when people share their truths,” Marvin Charles said. “Boundaries are broken, resentment is washed away and bridges are built. Simply put, we are learning to hear one another.”

Any man is welcome to attend these backroom meetings where men like Will Hughes meet men who run corporations, like the Costco executive who attends regularly or the successful graphic artist.

Stefano Gaudiano, an artist working on “The Walking Dead” comic books, has been attending DADS for the past two years, originally because he “was intrigued to get to know an organization that was in a different part of town,” he said.

He continued to attend, “because I have a desire to do my best to be a considerate father, which is a challenge to anybody, and I came because I feel a desire to do something positive in my community.”

That desire, to do something positive, is what has DADS envisioning expansion.

The organization is partnering with the Department of Corrections to mentor fathers on the verge of getting out of prison and has established a satellite office in Tacoma.

It hopes, too, to open others in Snohomish County and Eastern Washington.

They’d love to see this model, or something like it, spread across the country.

Marvin Charles said: “I know this can help people in every community, because it is not just about color or class or age, it’s about something far bigger and deeper. We are all people and we need each other now more than ever.”