Last week, Fairyland partnered for the first time with a new organization devoted to the principle that increasing fathers’ involvement in children’s lives strengthens families and communities in Alameda County. A year-old collaboration between First 5 Alameda County and the Alameda County Public Health Department, the Father’s Corps’ “Daddy & Me” program is based on strong research showing that children with responsive fathers in their lives score higher on measures of emotional intelligence, have higher levels of self-esteem and experience greater academic success and life satisfaction.

Leading the effort are 35 men who represent a wide range of “wraparound” service providers, from housing to family law, from probation to employment, from medical care to child support. They serve their clients by increasing the dads’ involvement in their children’s lives, focusing on factors specific to men’s needs and challenges. The field trip to Fairyland was one of their Daddy & Me events, and what a great day it was.

Before they entered the park, I met the nearly 40 dads (from Oakland and Berkeley and all the way out in Livermore) and the nearly 50 kids they brought with them. The dads looked hip and cool and sported a variety of tattoos; their kids wore bows in their hair and cartoon T-shirts. About half of the dads had never been to the park before, but many had come as kids, and even brought their old Magic Keys. Everyone looked excited to spend a day of unstructured play—together.

Alameda County Fatherhood Initiative manager Gary Thompson (second from right), and Fairyland’s Jeni Johnston (second from left) joined some of the 35 leaders of the “Daddy & Me” program whose clients enjoyed a field trip to the park last week.

“Having fun is a learning opportunity!” said Gary Thompson, who manages the Fatherhood Initiative. And fun is definitely what they all had during their day at Fairyland. “Just watching their children play, interacting with them and experiencing the diversity of families in the park—it was wonderful for the dads,” Gary said. ”Planting these seeds of joy is important.”

He noted that not all of the dads they work with are biologically related to the children: some are father figures, uncles or brothers taking a lead role in a child’s life. The dads are referred from many different county agencies, including probation and social services.

Gary, whose background includes a stint in the Navy as well as serving as a credentialed adult education teacher and vice principal of an Oakland public school, grew up in a family of teachers who were very involved in the community. “Parents are our primary educators,” he said. “Our program helps dads build family bonds, and we support them in every way we can.”

When I greeted the group, I told them that while most of Fairyland’s executive directors have been women, it was two men—Arthur Navlet and William Penn Mott, Jr.—who created Fairyland back in 1950. Many people think that the park’s “no adult without a child, no child without an adult” rule was established for safety reasons. But the men who created the park had had another reason: They intended Fairyland to be a place where family members could connect in a safe, sweet environment—to enjoy one another.

Sixty-four years later, we couldn’t agree more. We look forward to welcoming the Daddy & Me daddies and kids back to Fairyland every year.

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