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'What makes a good father?' How Father Project is helping young men build better lives for themselves and their children

Rich Reeve
Updated: July 31, 2020 10:30 PM
Created: July 31, 2020 09:33 PM

Photographs and memories reflect Guy Bowling's life.

The pictures show a loving father and grandfather who moved from Chicago's south side to Minneapolis when he was in middle school.

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Bowling said his mother, a single parent, wanted a better life for him and his siblings.

"I grew up in a household with an absentee father," he recalled. "My son was born when I was 16 years of age, so I had to figure out a lot of these things, but there were no programs available."

Bowling, now 53, wanted to change that.

Now, he helps other young fathers by managing a nonprofit called Father Project.

"I think that's what motivated me to do something like this," he explained. "Because I knew if I had those resources and support, the world would have been a little more easier to travel down."

Father Project, short for "Fostering Actions to Help Earnings and Responsibility," began as a city of Minneapolis workforce development program in 1999.

By 2004, it was transformed into a Goodwill/Easter Seals project, based on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

This year, the project offices were burned during the riots and staffers temporarily moved to St. Paul.

Like other nonprofits, Father Project is struggling for money and was forced to cut back from a staff of 15 to just three full-time staffers and four volunteers.

But their mission is the same: helping low-income, often unmarried fathers get their lives together and navigate their way to a better future.

"These guys are looking to how to be better, as men and fathers, and be better mates," Bowling explained. "Anything from child support to family court to employment to parenting classes, through GED."

The project now mentors about 60 fathers.

"I'm a facilitator as well as outreach. Amazing outreach is what they call it," declared Damian Winfield, one of the program's counselors. "I've had seven children, they all live in different households for the most part. There's four different households, so you don't think there's seven."

Winfield, 48, has faced tragedy and struggle in his own life.

A son who died by suicide; moving from job to job, to avoid child support; and becoming a father in his teens

"I didn't have a father in my life to help me understand the things I was going through," he said quietly. "My dad was married to my mom, but the only memories I have of my dad is breaking into our house and abusing my mom, trying to be a father."

With Bowling's help, he's dealt with depression issues, taken personal responsibility, and the best part — has reconnected with his children.

Now, Winfield is helping others.

"Co-parenting, when you don't live in the home, you got all these difficulties, these barriers, and these things that kind of prohibit you from at least trying to be a father," he said.

"I'm not the best dad, but with training and support, I look at my children, and thanking God how wonderful they're growing up, you know what I mean? The people they're going to be, they're going to be somebody," he added.

Michael Russell, a 38-year-old father of three, was initially hired to work at Father Project through a grant.

He started as a volunteer, moved up to be an office assistant and is now a case manager and counselor for fathers leaving incarceration.

"The good father is positioning his children to be successful in the future," he explained.

Russell said economic and emotional stability are two of the most vital and important skills he teaches.

"What makes a good father?" he asks. "It's one who can provide, not just economically — that's an important piece — but also emotionally. The father that reconnects with his kids and guides them, and puts the children in the best position not only as children, but as the adults they're going to be tomorrow."

In a year unlike any other, Bowling believes the death of George Floyd is raising awareness of the plight of these fathers — and of their struggles to change.

"It's a revolutionary time," he said. "This is a revolutionary moment for all of us. The whole world is seeing the challenges these men, face, right? It now forces the conversation in a way it didn't."

Bowling said he's mentored and worked with over 25,000 men, children and families in the last 25 years.

Now, he and Father Project are getting a boost of sorts.

Bowling was among 746 people who applied for the 2020 Bush Fellowship.

He is one of 24 finalists.

As a Bush Fellow, he's pursuing a graduate degree in public affairs at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota.

The grants provide up to $100,000 for a 12 to 24-month period.

Bowling hopes to learn more about government and public policy, and use that information to help fathers.

"They invest in you to be a more and better-skilled leader in your community," Bowling said. "I hope to better understand policy and policy development, research, analysis, and evaluation — to really be able to continue to do the work that I've been doing."

All three men say Father Project has changed their lives.

Winfield now runs two businesses: a security firm and a window cleaning company.

He's also an adult foster care provider.

And he has a growing, loving relationship with his children.

"When you have a grandchild, and your grandchild calls you 'papa' — and your daughter sits and she can smile at you while her daughter is smiling at her dad, it's a beautiful thing, buddy," Winfield said, smiling. "I tell you, I would not change that for the life, for the world."

Russell said he's learned how a great father grows in ways to help his children reach for their dreams.

It's a lesson he hopes every father can benefit from.

"It's the goal of putting children in the position that they can do what they love, and possibly being able to earn and have a living off of it," he declared. "And to be able to survive and pay it forward."

Bowling, who started classes a week or so ago, believes the fellowship will make a difference — for him, Father Project and the community.

"I think this program and what we're doing allows us to really let the world know, in addition to those that want to support us know, what these men need in order to be stable, successful and productive, and be there for their kids."

You can find out more about Father Project here.


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