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Dads Project: ‘We offer dads a space to talk and feel they are being listened to and heard’

To mark Father’s Day and Men’s Mental Health Week, Dads Project is hosting walks and a number of other initiatives, writes Stephanie Bell

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Dominic Kelly who is on the steering committee of the dad’s project

Dominic Kelly who is on the steering committee of the dad’s project

Dominic Kelly who is on the steering committee of the dad’s project

The important role dads play in their children’s lives will be highlighted this Father’s Day weekend when dozens of dads take to the road for two 12km walks on Saturday.

The walks are being organised by the Dads Project, a successful support and mentoring group run by Parenting NI.

Dads across Northern Ireland are also being urged to get involved in Men’s Mental Health Week (June 13-19) by hosting lunches or coffee chats throughout this week.

Dads Project will also be operating an Empathy Tent until Friday of this week on the banks of the River Foyle, outside Sainsbury’s in Derry.

Project coordinator Cahir Murray will man the tent each morning and evening for men who simply want to talk.

Cahir says the whole team is super excited about the Dads Walk and other activities that have been planned to “value dads, celebrate Father’s Day and also Men’s Mental Health Week”.

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He says: “We want to celebrate dads and all that they do.

“We are delighted to be hosting two walk and talk events for dads, aptly named Dads Walk, and we hope men will come along and join the fun.

“It is open to all dads, granddads, stepfathers, adoptive dads, anyone who is a positive role model in a child’s life.

“It is an opportunity for dads to back the project services, to connect with old faces and to help raise awareness of the support needed for separated dads.“

The Dads Project was set up by Parenting NI five years ago after research recognised the important role fathers play in their children’s development and mental wellbeing. Largely aimed at separated dads, to date it has helped several thousand men through educational courses and peer support groups.

Many dads who have reached out to the project or been referred by other agencies have been struggling to cope after a relationship breakdown.

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Cahir Murray of Dads Project

Cahir Murray of Dads Project

Cahir Murray of Dads Project

Cahir explains: “We offer dads a space to talk and feel they are being listened to and heard.

“We try to build them up and look at their emotional, mental and physical health, providing support so they don’t feel isolated.

“We recognise that fathers are experts in their own right at parenting even though they have been through separation.

“Each dad should be recognised as a person of worthiness even though he may not be a resident dad.

“We help dads to develop more confidence in their parenting abilities as well as build social connections with other dads.

“We want to get the message out that while we recognise the benefits of mums’ parenting it is also important that dads too feel they are people of worth.

“Valuing dads doesn’t lessen the importance of mums, and children benefit from having two parents.

“This support has a ripple effect as many dads move on from the very fragile state of being separated to supporting other fathers in the same position through conversation,” Cahir adds.

The essence of the approach is that as dads develop more confidence in their parenting ability they will go on to build positive connections with other men in a similar position.

The Dads Project also supports single/separated mums through the provision of a Parenting Apart Programme helping them to feel better informed about how best to help their children during and after a separation.

It was set up five years ago after research recognised the crucial role dads play in their children’s social and emotional development.

The Big Lottery provided funding for the first five years and the project is now in jeopardy as that money comes to an end this December.

Cahir says demand for this unique service is still there and he hopes that this week’s events might help create financial support to enable the project to continue beyond this year.

He says: “Parenting NI does support all parents but this service for separated dads, which is one of the only services of its kind in Northern Ireland, will no longer exist and that will be a tragedy.

“It is difficult to ask for financial support because no one likes to ask for money, but research has shown just how important a dad’s role is in being part of their child’s life and also in supporting the mum.

“There is a lot of stigma for men in reaching out and getting support and talking and we offer that place where men can talk without feeling judged.

“Hopefully people will see how important it is and that it should be supported for what ultimately is the benefit of our children.

“I would appeal to people to go onto our page and make a small donation. Even the smallest donation can help.

“Dads continue to be desperate for connections, they want and need help and can’t get it — we want to continue to offer this essential support into 2023 and beyond, for all dads.”

An important part of the service is an online regional support group called Dad’s Talk which is held every Thursday.

It is a chance for dads to come together and talk while supporting each other.

It proved a lifeline for local dad-of-one Dominic Kelly, from Gilford in Co Down who joined the project just over three years ago after he split up with his partner. The 35-year-old trainee forensic psychologist admits he was in a “dark place” at the time.

He says: “It was dominating my life and I was chewing the ears off everyone about my situation and I realised I needed to find something outside of my family to focus on as it was beginning to ruin my relationship with them.

“I found the peer support such a big help.

“Just meeting other dads and chatting about our situation with each other became such an important part of my life that I now chair a steering group in the Dads Project.

Dominic continues: “This journey of being a dad goes through different phases and you become really focused on your own case. Through the project I found that I get more out of helping others.

“At the beginning you are in a phase where you can’t think of anyone but yourself, but with support you become less fixated and focused on you and all the injustices and move to a point where you can help and support others because you have been there.”

Dominic feels that mums are rightly celebrated for their crucial role in parenting but that dads too should be valued for their contribution.

He says: “In the last couple of years I think we have been making a little bit of headway in highlighting the fact that both parents should be celebrated and that dads do play an important role too.

“There are a whole host of things that dads can provide given the opportunity.

“Kids’ lives can be so much more improved by having both parents.

“For me it has been a real battle over the years and I think you reach a point when you have to manage your expectations of what level of involvement you are going to have.

“I think you need to have that talk with yourself and accept you are not going to be the dad you want to be but the dad you have to be.

“I think people need to accept that as dads we are here and we are trying.”

Dominic will be among the fathers joining the walks this Saturday.

Cahir will lead the Derry walk along the Foyle while his colleague Noel McCann, also a coordinator of the project, will lead the Belfast group along the Lagan Towpath. Both walks start at 10am and everyone is welcome.

For more information go www.parentingni.org/parents/dads-project


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