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Fatherhood can be difficult, especially if you are in poverty. But the Focus on Fathers Initiative, which is operated by the Racine Family YMCA, has helped over 1,000 fathers in Racine.

Since starting eight years ago, the program has expanded significantly over the past eight years to tackle more than just fatherhood. It helps to connect fathers to their families, their community and themselves. The initiative includes five programs: Nurturing Fathers, Within Our Reach, Job Readiness, Daddy Day Out, and the Racine Fatherhood Coalition.

Zakee Darr, the coordinator of the Focus on Fathers program, said it all started with seeing an unmet need in the community to do more to help young men.

“When we were working with John Mann and Young Leaders Academy we were dealing with a lot of moms and grandmas,” he said. “We realized that we needed to find a way to reach out to the fathers. So Jeff Collins, the president of the YMCA, said why not start a program around fatherhood.”

The expanded program now helps fathers unravel barriers around employment, custody issues, finances, not having a driver’s license, alcohol and drug use, housing and childcare, Darr said.

“So we keep knocking down those barriers one at a time,” Darr said. “We may have to feed them two to three times week, but once we’ve gotten a few of those barriers knocked down, they have bought into the philosophy.”

A number of the fathers walking through the door of the program have no stable housing, jobs, driver’s license or car, and owe back child support. About 80 percent of the men suffer from depression and use marijuana.

“I ask these men… are you in for the grind? Because these barriers are overwhelming to deal with when you look at them all at once,” Darr said. “And mental health, that’s a major issue. It’s probably number two after housing. And marijuana seems to be the Prozac for the poor.”

Now that there are more opportunities for training and the job market has picked up, Darr is seeing more daily and long-term progress.

The men are landing jobs, getting their driver’s licenses, and getting visitation with their children.

“It’s very rewarding right now, now that the job market has picked up,” he said.

The men get referred to the program through a number of social services agencies and it operates out of the Lakefront Branch. Right now the program serves about 12 to 15 men.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.