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Life's Voices: Finding 'Wealth' by Helping Fathers Reunite with their Kids

Courtesy of Dennis Walton
Dennis Walton (right) and his family

You've probably heard that it's important for fathers to be involved in their children's lives. Yet some dads struggle, such as those who don't have a good relationship with their kids' mom. A local organization gives men tools to connect with their children. One of its leaders knows what the dads are going through, from personal experience.

Dennis Walton became a father 14 years ago, when he was 29. He was a community organizer and college student, who wanted to be a dad his whole life. So he was thrilled when his son was born, and again the next year, when a daughter arrived. Yet when the kids were three and four, Walton says he and their mother fell out of love, and she took their children out of the state.

"When you're not connected to your children, there's an emptiness, there's a void, there's a hurt and a pain that exists within you where you're unfulfilled, you're incomplete, and walking around with that hole in my heart and in my spirit, I had to heal that," Walton says.

Walton began a grueling custody battle that lasted five years. During that difficult period, he got a job offer from Terence Ray, the executive director of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative. It helps men participate in their kids' lives. At first, Walton says he had doubts about taking the post, because he was trying to work on his own situation with his kids. But Walton says Ray told him the Fatherhood Initiative could help him. Walton accepted the job and quickly learned a valuable lesson.

"A lot of times when we're going through something, we think that it's just us. We don't realize that other people are going through the same experiences. And as I started to meet with fathers and meet with men and learn about what their challenges were as fathers, I learned that it wasn't only me," Walton says.

Walton says he realized he could transform his experiences into helping others get involved in their children's lives.

"When men are struggling with these circumstances, they need to know that there's somebody else that has went through this and who has overcame it and can show them how to deal with it themselves, and that's where my focus became," Walton says.

Walton says the work is one of the most important things he can do. He says he's been able to help thousands of fathers "through our fatherhood summits, through our daddy-daughter dances, from our partnership with the Center for Driver's License Recovery to all the employment programs that we're a part of, working with the correctional facilities where we're going in and training men through curriculum on how to become better fathers."

Walton says he tells men they don't have to be trapped by their past. He says when he was young he was in a gang and headed down the wrong path, but people who believed in him gave him opportunities to turn his life around. Walton says his goal is to tell fathers they can do the same -- and when they do, the payoff is priceless.

"Give them the direction that they need and watch them follow those steps, and then to see them successful and get back into the lives of their children, successful and get employed, successful when they come out of incarceration and their family becomes their focus, and then you see how you're changing families and communities through this work, for me, you know, that's wealth."

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