This is a Two-Parter, folks! But these two parts are inextricably linked. A lot of content creators advise to keep it small on the internet but I don’t really care. I’m not sure how in this case.
Here’s the TLDR version: I spoke at and attended a conference for dads that gave me more than I gave it. I also helped put on a daddy-daughter dance at a prison that gave me more than I gave it. I’m a better person for having done both. I hope you’re a better person for reading the long version.
Fair warning: There are some adult words in here… strategically used, of course, but… adult. Why? I guess I had some more passionate feelings come out as I was writing and reflecting.
Back in Late February, I was asked to speak at a Dad Blogger Convention called Dad 2.0 Summit. It’s a lot like the very popular Mom 2.0 Summits but… y’know… for dads. I myself am not a dad-blogger because I don’t write a lot about my kids. I think I’ve mentioned my kids but nothing that would really count as “dad blogging.” But, I do speak and write on moderation and BALANCE being a key component of what it means to be “a moderate.” Therefore, I was speaking as a part of a panel on work-life balance. Let’s face it, I’ve got my main job, speaking gigs, this here blog, a podcast, wife, two kids, two dogs, my non-profit board service, some other volunteer stuff, my health, and my re-burgeoning social life. Basically, I’m in AS GOOD OF A POSITION AS ANYBODY to talk about work-life balance. The short of my message is this: I’m not sure if I’ve got the balance thing figured out but I’m trying like hell - just like everyone else there.
Dad 2.0 Summit gave me so much. It was filled with men, women, and non-binary parents who have built careers out of talking and writing about their family lives. Not only were they there to be better writers and business people, they were there to be better parents. There was a real sense of community which, for an industry conference, seems insane. These folks campaigned for safe and smart internet use through Google and Bark; they took pledges to advocate for paid paternity leave with Dove Men+Care; they opened up about things like mental fitness with Fodada. I also got to see Dax Shepard, Rhys Darby, and Shaun T. I listened to some amazing writers and got to meet some genuinely good people On top of all that, we had a great panel and I had a blast hanging out with my fellow panelists Michael Ashford of Fit Dad Fitness, Tom Sylvester, and our moderator Marc Nathan. And I’ll try to write more on that later but really it’s just context for what comes next.
For the past few months, I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some of Oklahoma City’s best and brightest young professionals on a volunteer project. These young pros are my fellow class members in the Leadership Oklahoma City LOYAL program. Here’s how it works: LOYAL is a leadership program that helps young professional get involved in the Oklahoma City nonprofit world. It’s leadership training that you can use in all aspects of your life but there is a bend towards nonprofits. As a part of that, class members are divided up into smaller teams that work with a pre-selected nonprofit on ONE BIG PROJECT. It’s called a LOYAL Action Project (LAP). Our LAP team got to work with a group called Oklahoma Messages Project (OMP). This is a 501(c)(3) that goes into prisons across Oklahoma “armed” with books and video recorders. Prisoners will pick out a book, write an inscription in the front of the book, and read the book on camera to their child (who is at home). Then OMP will package and mail the book and DVD to the kid back at home and the child has these two keepsakes forever. They can read the book along with the parent, build a connection with their incarcerated parent, and build their literacy. Additionally, the prisoner and the caregiver also build a positive relationship, lower the recidivism rate, and break the cycle of kids following the same prison-prone-path of their parents (I beg you to forgive that alliterative sentence). Well, OMP wanted to do something special that has NEVER been done in the state of Oklahoma and there are less than a handful of examples anywhere: A Father-Daughter Dance at an Oklahoma Prison.
Great idea right? This is an experience that many dads get to experience on the outside that isn’t offered to dads that are locked up.. and clearly not offered to their daughters either.
There were a TON of hurdles to jump through and our leader through it all was Cyndi Munson. She along with, Executive Director, Cheri Fuller navigated this effort through the Oklahoma Department of Corrections red tape to help us help them put this dance on. That said, we wouldn’t have gotten this done if it weren’t for the help of a few key players within the DOC. You’ve seen from some of my previous writings that I’m a big proponent of good government work and I’m sticking to that. Also, my LOYAL teammates managed to secure some sponsorships, donations, and volunteers for food, balloons, care packages, DJ, photobooth, flowers, and photographers. It was the best kind of public, private, nonprofit partnership society could imagine.
A quick word about my LOYAL teammates: They’re fucking rockstars. By day they’re counselors, administrators, dentists, IT security experts, lawyers, pediatric ophthalmologists, project managers, and corporate execs. Off duty they take on more tasks than I ever did when I was their age (pretty sure I’m a few years older than most of them) and they give a shit about their city and state and they’re working their asses off to leave things better than they found it.
Let’s skip the boring prep work and get right into the event. JUST KNOW that, like anything else in life, most of the work is behind the scenes and the part that everyone sees is less than 10% of what went on. The night of, I was in great spirits. I wasn’t really “feeling emotional things.” I was more just thinking, “This is going to be a fun event. We’re putting on a fun, memorable event for these prisoners and their kids.” It was raining like crazy while the girls and caregivers were showing up. So, I took it upon myself to grab some umbrellas and escort the girls and caregivers inside.
These kids looked incredible. They were dolled up with dresses and makeup. And it slowly started creeping into my big, dumb skull that this is a huge-frickin’ deal for these families. They began taking seats and snacking on the popcorn while the other families arrived; and then… the wait. There was one family coming in from the eastern part of the state. As I mentioned it was raining, it was pouring, old men weren’t snoring because they were waiting to see their daughters. But this family from Eastern Oklahoma was running way behind and so this tension started building.
Prisoners were out of the room… waiting.
Caregivers and especially daughters were in the room… waiting.
Finally, after about 25 minutes, the final family showed up with THREE DAUGHTERS to see their dad and things began to move at an incredible clip.
In no time, the caregivers left to have a night on the town and the fathers entered in the room.
Have you ever been to a concert and the drummer mashes the kick drum pedal? The bass blast has such incredible pressure that although the main output is the sound, there is an accompanying air pressure that’s unseen but felt, right? That’s what this was. These dads entered and immediately dissolved into teddy bears. The pressure of the emotion blasted through the room like a Keith Moon kick drum.
I saw a hulking giant of a man run to his teenage daughter to embrace her for two solid minutes. I saw dainty little girls with curly hair sprint to their very un-dainty dads with face tattoos and they melted… MELTED - the dads that is. The daughters melted too. Hell, I melted too.
There weren’t that many dry eyes in the room after that for a few minutes. And I thought back to the dudes I had met at Dad 2.0. Those dudes, have given their lives for their kids. They write, and podcast, and live their lives for their families. They try to be better parents and partners in the best way they can or know how. These prisoners would probably love to have the same opportunities but just can’t right now. After seeing what I saw at the dance, I think it’s fair to say that some of them do live their lives for their kids and they DO try to be better parents and partners in the best way they can. They may not write or podcast but given their circumstances, they’re living day-to-day so that they can spend another day with their little kids. They’re working their asses off so they can be there (one day) and I honestly can’t imagine the guilt they carry with them.
At Dad Summit 2.0, one of my panel attendees asked the question that was related to how one processes the guilt from a life of imbalance. It wasn’t lost on anyone in the room that we were on a weekend away from our families, at an industry conference, learning how to be better entrepreneurs and dads but we could only really do that without our kids. But at this prison, these dudes didn’t have the luxury of asking that question or fixing the problem. My family, right now is in Oklahoma while I am in Chantilly, VA. I can FaceTime my kids right now if I want to. My oldest son doesn’t even really miss me because he knows I’ve only been gone 4 days and he’ll see me tomorrow. None of these fellas have that luxury.
And, I get it. They’ve done something wrong and now they’re doing time. I get that it’s part of the process of corrections. But… Fuck.
I don’t know. It’s easy to go down a path of criticizing the entirety of the correctional system but I don’t want to do that. Let’s be honest, I don’t know how to fix it anyway. I would prefer to just focus on the fact that for one night some daddies and daughters and caregivers had a good night. A great night! A night they surely won’t forget for a long time.
I can’t really share too many of the pictures of that night. I’ve shared what I can but there was a certain magic that should be kept in that room along with the hearts and the minds of those involved. As I said before, this was a public, private partnership to the Nth degree. None of this would have happened without Oklahoma Message Project (Cyndi and Cheri leading the way), the good people at Clara Waters Correctional Facility and Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Hal Smith Restaurant Group, Love's Travel Stops and Country Stores, Crystal and Mercedes at Cinemark Tinseltown and XD, The Warwick Group, Leadership OKC, LaVelle Compton, DJ Clayton, and James Ridley the photobooth dude.