Rotarian Reflection – David Hirsch
Shortly after I became a father for the fifth time, I was stunned to learn an estimated 24m children (4 of every 10) across America, are growing up without their dads. Research shows children growing up in father absent homes are 4X more likely to grow up in poverty and 9X more likely to drop out of high school. I also learned there are 2X the number of white vs. black children growing up without their dads.
The issue of father absence (also known as the breakdown of the family) is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our time.
In early 1997, I was compelled to do something and organized a ‘community leaders briefing’ at Union League Club of Chicago. 120 community leaders showed up and validated what we were talking about, which lead to the creation of the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative (IFI), the country’s first state-wide non-profit fatherhood organization, whose mission is to ‘actively engaging fathers in the education of children.’ IFI is basically a partnership with the Illinois State Board of Ed, Chicago Public Schools and the Office of Catholic Education/Archdiocese of Chicago.
We learned early on, one of the most direct ways to reach the heart of a father is through the words of his children. Over the past 24 years and among a lot of other programs and events, IFI has had more than 425,000 students write authentic and heartfelt essays about their dads, stepdads, granddads and father-figures.
Fast forward, my children are now ages 24 to 31. More recently, I helped create the 21st Century Dads Foundation, whose mission is “Improving the lives of children by raising awareness and resources for greater father involvement, and inspiring dads to be present; physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually.”
The signature program of 21CD is the Special Fathers Network, a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. More seasoned dads are matched with fathers closer to the beginning of their journey raising a child with the same or similar special need. Most all of the first 500+ SFN Mentor Fathers have said “I wish there was something like this when I was a younger father.” Many describe the isolation and loneliness they experienced. No one in their family, neighborhood, friend group or at work could relate to the experience of raising a child with special needs.
I also host the weekly SFN Dad To Dad Podcast, which are stories about fathers overcoming their challenges, sharing what they learned, and most importantly, to accept their child for who they are vs. who they wanted or expected them to be. Simply stated, these are some of the most inspiring fatherhood stories you’ll ever hear. You don’t have to be a dad or even a man to be inspired.
With my 30+ years of being a dad and dozens of years of advocating for father involvement and beyond the shadow of a doubt, some of the best parenting on the planet is found in the families of those raising children with special needs. These moms and dads are some of the fiercest advocates. In many cases, their path is 24/7 challenging. On average they have their priorities in crystal clear focus. They are role models for the rest of society.
The biggest take away is: you don’t have to have a child with special needs to become the best advocate for your child, but you do need to possess the commitment to help your children reach their full potential.
For more information on 21CD or the SFN, please go to www.21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch is a financial advisor with UBS Financial Services, co-program chair for Rotary Club of Chicago, author of the book A Father’s Journey To Break The Cycle Of Father Absence and an outspoken advocate for children and fathers. He also gave a TEDx Talk entitled Why We Need To Break The Cycle Of Father Absence.
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