Single Fathers Navigate Many Barriers in Fort Collins
By Sarah Jane Kyle
Donavon Stark listens as his daughter Paige pulls her bow across the strings of a borrowed violin in the backyard of their Fort Collins duplex. She pauses and shyly looks to him for approval. She's met with applause at the end of every song.
A history of hurdles trained Stark, 43, to think formal assistance wasn't open to a single father. Paige's mother violated a shared custody arrangement, and Stark still struggled with getting custody of Paige when she was a baby.
The struggle was worth it, as he now spends most of his waking moments providing for and encouraging 11-year-old Paige.
"No matter what I do from here to the rest of my life, she will be my greatest contribution to this world," he said. "I'm sure of it."
Stark is one of four male Project Self-Sufficiency clients, out of 130. He's also one of five men involved in the single parent program at Front Range Community College's Larimer County campus, which is helping 120 single parents who are students this semester.
The annual Kids Count in Colorado Report, which was released by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation in March, identified single-parent families as a risk factor of poverty. Nearly a quarter of Larimer County children live in a single-parent home, according to the report.
But research specifically on single dads is lacking, said Sarah Hughes, research director at Colorado Children's Campaign.
"There is research showing that children in single-mother families are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to become pregnant as a teen," she said. "Those two things also very well could be true for kids in single-father families, but unfortunately there's not a huge body of research on children of single dads."
Programming for single dads in poverty is also slim. Project Self-Sufficiency and Front Range's single-parent program are the only of their kind in Larimer County that help single fathers on the road to self-sufficiency, said Marla Manchego, single parent counselor at Front Range Community College. She said it's really hard to find resources for single fathers, and that they "get slighted a lot of the times."
While Stark was able to arrange his work schedule as a taxi driver to avoid putting Paige in day care, other single fathers aren't so lucky. Unlike they're female counterparts, child care and other scholarships aren't available, Manchego said.
"Men, as well as the community, believe they should be able to figure this out on their own and do life with kids just like anything else," she said. "I think the stigma comes both from single dads and from the community."
Thirty percent of the county's single parents are male. But Manchego said while no scholarship programs exist for single fathers in Larimer County, there are several for single mothers.
Scholarship programs, such as WomenGive, cater to single mothers. WomenGive offers its recipients $100 to $200 per child per week for full-time child care or $75 to $100 week for before- and after-school care.
"It is a little disheartening working with single dads because there aren't as many resources," she said. "They're in the same boat as a single mom, trying to find child care and working and putting all of the logistics together."
United Way of Larimer County Spokeswoman Kate Hagdorn said the WomenGive scholarship program's mission has always been about "women helping women." The program has more applicants than scholarship funds and has had to turn some single mothers away, she said.
"If we get to a point where we have more funding than single mother need, then we may consider expanding to single fathers," she said. "But it's not part of the discussion right now."
Male participation in programs open to single fathers is limited. Only 4 percent of Front Range's single parent program participants and 3 percent of Project Self-Sufficiency's clients are men.
While Project Self-Sufficiency doesn't have formal plans to attract more male participants, Executive Director Tracy Mead said she would welcome suggestions from the community on how to engage single dads in need.
While Mead attributes some of her program's lack of male clients to a smaller population, she also believes that some of it "ties back to the male thing" — that some men are not as comfortable seeking formalized support through the program.
Front Range Community College's single-parent program uses gender-neutral advertising to attract male participants and is recommended to any single parents who self-disclose during their admissions counseling, Manchego said.
Project Self-Sufficiency helps single parents in poverty by providing a host of supportive services, from financial aid to career and education counseling.
"I'm stereotyping here, but bear with me," Mead said. "Most men aren't as inclined to be vulnerable. They're not as inclined to ask for help. They're maybe not as inclined to work with a case manager, unless they're forced to."
Stark is an outlier. He heard about the Front Range program through his therapist. He was seeing the therapist for anxiety issues and expressed that he wanted to go back to school. Stark was accepted into the program and is now pursuing an associate degree in business at Front Range Community College. He hopes to transfer to Colorado State University to earn a degree in computer information systems.
His Project Self-Sufficiency adviser, Michele Sheetz, said the degree should help him earn a livable wage and bypass the cliff effect, which is the gap between qualifying for social services such as food stamps and earning enough to be self-sufficient.
For example, a single parent of two could lose services while making $14 per hour despite not being self-sufficient in Larimer County until they make $18 per hour. The cliff effect's parameters vary according to family size and location.
Many struggles can transcend genders when it comes to being a single parent, Sheetz said.
"They have to be the one and only person and provider," she said. "There's difficulty finding affordable housing and meeting basic needs. If your child gets sick and you're working, then you're the only one they call, and your employment could be compromised."
"Being a single parent is always a challenge, but being a single parent with low income is an enormous challenge."
Stark has found his way around some of those issues by working 12-hour shifts as a taxi driver on weekends, during which Paige spends time with extended family. Those shifts and long hours allow him to be present for his daughter during the week and attend school without compromising his employment.
But it's worth any hardship, he said. Stark also has a son who is in his 20s. Stark, who was 19 at the time, did not seek full custody during his divorce. He was in his 30s when Paige was born and was determined to do things differently.
"The court battle was very difficult," he said. "But when Paige came along, I knew I wasn't going to be an absent father, no matter what happened. I was in it for the long haul, and I didn't want to make the same mistakes I made with my son."
Every morning, he drops Paige and her violin off at Laurel Elementary School, where a free program fosters her love for music. Then he heads to Front Range, where he takes classes and meets with tutors.
Every afternoon, he picks Paige up. After they've eaten dinner and she's finished any homework and fallen asleep, Stark turns to his own homework.
Being a working parent on the "low income spectrum" while going back to school isn't always easy, but it's the life he's committed to and he's honest with Paige about his journey.
"I hit bumps in the road. I do bad on tests," he said. "But when you hit a roadblock, you just have to give it more effort."
Scheetz hopes Stark's drive and success story in the making will encourage more single fathers to seek help.
"We are here for all single parents, and we would love to serve more men," she said. "My main role is to be the cheerleader they never may have never had and to have faith in them."
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