During last Saturday’s annual Father Fest, Eric Rice was making the rounds with one daughter under his left arm and another under the right, chatting with fellow parents from Dunn Elememtary, including principal Mary Helen Burnett.
Rice and his fellow Dunn Dragon parents had just been recognized as a Fathers and Families Friendly Campus, a relatively new award for this long-running event.
“It’s always nice to be recognized for what you do,” said Rice.
There was a time when Father Fest was exclusively about Arlington ISD dads and served mainly as the signature promotional event that helped get the word out about dad’s clubs.
Dad’s clubs and the encouragement of dads, uncles, brothers and all adult males to serve as positive role models for students remain a big focal point, said Title I parent facilitator Johnathane Gaffney of Arlington ISD’s parent and community engagement department, but many things have changed. The festival is now held at the Arlington ISD Athletics Center, and the program has an expanded scope for the event that still supports fathers but now includes entire families.
A significant festival commitment is to bring community partners and resources together to equip and support families. When families arrived, they were pointed to go upstairs at the center, where they could get free books for summer reading and loads of information on things like dental health lessons. They could also get information on everything from Girls Inc., Tarrant County Kids.org and a slew of educational opportunities.
“Singling out the dad’s clubs was good, but we wanted to move beyond that,” said Gaffney. “We wanted to open it up and include families as a whole. That male presence is still vital for our schools, especially since studies show the positive effects males have on students when in school. Males must be positive role models and become more active in their students’ education and activities.”
Gaffney said that while the festival remains a fun event for kids – they can play all sorts of games and eat good food – one of the things that Father Fest points out is how fatherhood has changed.
For instance, Kenneth Gibbs wanted to do two things when he left the military. Going to school to earn a college degree was one. Being a significant influence in the lives of his children was the other. Gibbs did both, juggling books and babies while being a stay-at-home dad.
“Staying at home allowed me to spend way more time with my son while going to school, so, yes, it was the right choice to make,” Gibbs said. “I’m sure many guys wouldn’t want to say they stayed at home and cared for the kids because of how society sees it, even though some things are changing.”
Another of the awards during Father Fest was the essay writing contest. Students were asked to write about a man who impacted them, and several picked their father.
Ray Cryer’s daughter at Peach Elementary wrote about him, saying how he encourages her whenever she is intimidated about doing something.
“There was a time when kids had a hard time picking a father because the image was of this silent type who kept the family financially afloat but was emotionally absent,” said Cryer. “That’s not the case anymore with fathers.”
When Gaffney had the first of his two children, a girl, he was concerned about how to raise her. Would he be “too gruff,” as he put it, which is how his father sternly raised him and how he dealt with his athletes while coaching sports at Seguin High School?
Now he fully understands how having a girl first has turned out “to be even more of a blessing,” he said. Gaffney, who oversees the multitude of dad’s clubs at elementary and junior high campuses, figured out rather quickly how he could be both the disciplinarian and nurturer, jumping between the two when the situation calls for it.
“She softened my heart,” Gaffney said of his daughter. “I couldn’t come at her too hard because she wouldn’t respond. It made me increase my emotional intelligence. It made me a better parent to my son and just a better person.”
One thing fathers tend to agree with these days is that most people didn’t look to them for affection growing up, and it was acceptable for fathers to have that hardline persona as long as they provided for the family. Now fatherhood is far more complex, and being the breadwinner – not all of them are anymore – doesn’t make it okay to be emotionally unavailable.
“That’s what I love about Father Fest,” said Larry Curry, founder of Metro Sports, which has worked with the festival for three years. “We can sometimes get a bad rap for not being there. But you come to this event and look around and see all kinds of fathers being with their kids. It’s nice to see and experience.”