National project equips men to mentor fatherless children.

by Craig Macartney

“Fatherlessness is North America’s HIV epidemic.”

These words, spoken by an Edmonton social worker, burned into the heart of Kirk Giles, president of Promise Keepers Canada. Giles was on a mission to explore the problem of fatherlessness in Canada and launch a project to change the face of the nation.

While few statistics exist on the number of Canadian children growing up without a father, census data provides clues to the growing extent of the problem. The 2011 census reports a total of 1.5 million single parent families in Canada, 80 per cent of which are led by women. Census data collected during the last 50 years also shows a dramatic increase in single parents who have never been married, from 9,300 in 1961, to more than 480,000 in 2011.

“There is a significant number of children and youth in our country who are growing up with an absent father or with no father at all,” Giles says. “Many of those cases have been because men abdicated their responsibility. So if men created the problem, we are calling men to be part of the solution.”

Promise Keepers is responding to the paternal void by launching The Fatherless Project, a training initiative aimed at equipping men to come alongside fatherless youth and children as mentors. At the end of the training men are connected with local agencies, such as Big Brothers and The Boys and Girls Club, where they are encouraged to volunteer as mentors.

“The vision behind the project is to activate men in the Christian community to be a part of the solution to fatherlessness in our country,” Giles explains. “Our role is to be a bridge between men in the church and the [local agencies] that are desperately crying out for men to step up.”

The Fatherless Project journey began several years ago, following a series of Toronto murders. Speaking with local pastors, Giles was asked how Promise Keepers could help them counter the cycles of crime and suffering.

“As I listened and asked questions I discovered over and over that the root cause was father-absent families,” Giles explains. “There were no men involved in these boys lives, giving them guidance, discipline and pointing them in the right direction. [The pastors] asked what Promise Keepers can do to help and it killed me that I didn’t have an answer.”

As he searched for a solution, Giles came across The Mentoring Project, a ministry based in Portland, Oregon, that strives to “rewrite the fatherless story.” By training Christian men and connecting them with local mentoring agencies, they hope to eliminate the waiting list among Portland’s mentoring agencies of 1,000 fatherless boys.

“It was like a light bulb went on,” says Giles. “We knew this was a role Promise Keepers can play: we can be that bridge to get men involved in their cities. So we adopted and adapted The Mentoring Project’s material and we are using that as the basis for The Fatherless Project’s training.”

Funded through a grant from Stronger Together, Promise Keepers organized forums in 10 Canadian cities to better understand the needs of the “front-line workers.” They invited social workers and delegates from numerous mentoring agencies across the country.

“You have to dig below the surface of statistics to get a sense of what the real story is,” Giles explains. “You have to spend time talking to the people on the ground and listening to the stories of what is going on in real life. Statistics can’t tell you that.”

Ian Nairn, National Missions Manager for Promise Keepers, was inspired by the “dedication of those working with the fatherless. We had some of the most amazing, heart wrenching and encouraging conversations with agencies across the country.”

In all, the forums included 96 participants who were asked three questions: what are the greatest needs of the fatherless in your community, what are some ways that Promise Keepers Canada could assist you, and what are the positives and negatives of engaging men from Christian churches to be part of the solution?

Some participants worried that boys who did not adopt Christian beliefs would end up rejected and abandoned, further compounding their struggles. Others were excited at the thought of an influx of caring men.

“One agency did a project, 100 days to get 100 [male] volunteers,” says Nairn. “They told me they reached their goal, but in spite of that, they still have a waiting list of over 500 boys—and these waiting lists are not uncommon.”

Agencies like Big Brothers told Nairn and Giles they often have less than one male volunteer to every four female volunteers. Again and again they heard about the void left by absent fathers. A Winnipeg social worker even stated that the concept of a father doesn’t exist in some parts of Canadian society.

As well as helping Promise Keepers understand the needs, Giles says the forums provided agencies with opportunities to network and share ideas. He says the agencies are often so busy they don’t have time to connect or find out about initiatives other organizations are putting on in the same area.

“It was very positive. We needed to hear their needs, hear what are the ways we would get in their way and what are the ways that we could support them,” says Giles.

“The needs are so vast, but it starts with men being present in the life of a child. Learning skills, what it means to be a good dad and how to mentor fatherless kids, all that can be learned, but there needs to be a willingness to be present.”

Numerous studies support Giles’ assertion. A 2007 study by the Father Involvement Initiative Ontario Network says that children raised in a single parent family “are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before they are 20 years old and 1.5 times as likely to be unemployed in their late teens and early twenties.”

The study specifically links father-absent children to an increased likelihood of addictions, poverty, crime, depression, suicide, academic struggles, premarital sex and numerous health problems.

“All it takes is showing up physically and showing up personally,” says Nairn. “Showing up personally means listening, being real and being humble. It’s a huge challenge when you start asking, ‘Am I showing up?’”

In February 2013, Promise Keepers launched a pilot project in Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario. The training seminar was attended by 45 men, including 35 from the area. At the end of the evening 19 participants indicated they were interested in applying with the local Big Brothers chapter. Nairn reports that a number of the men have completed Big Brothers’ screening and are now involved.

“The agency told us that is an excellent response rate,” he says. “The greatest challenge is for men to move beyond the hurdle of, ‘I don’t have the time.’”

While the time commitment varies between organizations, Nairn says agencies generally require a commitment of at least one or two hours a week. He says some of the men from the pilot project are doing one on one mentoring with their “little brothers” and others have bundled their mentoring time with small group activities.

Giles says the goal is for struggling children and youth to receive hope and to see that there are godly men who love them, men who can help them become all God created them to be. He believes that over the coming years The Fatherless Project will “make a dent in the massive issue of fatherlessness in our culture.”

Promise Keepers plans to roll out the project as part of their “Stronger” conference series. The conference began a 10-city tour in late October. Every event will feature a segment highlighting the needs of the fatherless across the country and challenging men to be part of the solution.

Several weeks after each conference, Promise Keepers will host at least one Fatherless Project training seminar in the city. The two-and-a-half hour long session will cost $15 and include a question and answer period, as well as presentations from several local agencies.

Promise Keepers has also started discussing the program with agencies in additional cities in the hopes of expanding the project further. Giles says they are also looking at how to build off of the project and in future years they hope to include information and training on how to be a good father.

“This will not be a one year project for us,” he states. “It will be at least three years before we can measure how successful we are being and how long we will carry on with it. We are going to go with it as long as we can be effective and serve the needs of the fatherless.”

Giles sees The Fatherless Project as an extension of a growing movement in the Church around the issues of foster parenting and adoption. He says they are simply adding another layer to what God is already stirring within the Church.

“We know God is calling men to represent His heart as a Father to kids in need across the country and we are thrilled to be part of that bigger picture. This is going to create a real-life scenario where men will be able to do something that is going to make a difference for decades to come. That alone, in many churches, will be very significant.”

Giles says the training sessions are intended to create a movement of men who are willing to give their time to be a part of the life of fatherless children.

He explains his ultimate goal for the project is that “in 10 or 15 years, when those children become dads themselves, we no longer have to deal with the issue of fatherlessness. Those kids will grow up not to be a statistic. They will grow up and build loving, caring, healthy families.”

Canada’s changing family dynamics

  • In 1961, Canada had 4.1 million families.
  • By 2011, Canada had 9.4 million families.
  • In 1961, married couples accounted for 91.6 per cent of Canadian families.
  • By 2011, married couples accounted for only 67.0 per cent of families.
  • In 1961, 8.4 per cent of families were led by a single parent.
  • By 2011, that number had nearly doubled to 16.3 per cent.
  • In 1961, 61.5 per cent of single parents were widowed, 35.8 per cent were
  • divorced or separated and 2.7 per cent had never been married.
  • By 2011, 17.7 per cent of single parents were widowed, 50.8 per cent were divorced or separated and 31.5 per cent had never been married.
  • In 2011, 12.8 per cent of all families were led by single mothers (or women).
  • That’s 80 per cent of all single families.

Source: Statistics Canada

Click Here to learn more about The Fatherless Project
The Fatherless Project