Health Center News, Uncategorized

Geiger-Gibson Emerging Leader Engages Fathers in D.C.

Every year the George Washington University Geiger Gibson Program in Community Health recognizes leaders in the Community Health Movement who are quietly making a difference.  One such leader, Felix Hernandez, a 2022 Geiger Gibson Emerging Leader, started as a middle school and pre-K teacher. That was just the beginning of his lifelong quest to lead with change in the community health space.

Hernandez works in a ground-breaking program at Mary’s Center in Washington, DC, as the Advocacy and Father Child Attachment Program Manager. The health center receives a grant from the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), which aims to reduce child abuse and neglect in the District by building and strengthening family relationships through home visiting programs. As a teacher, Hernandez recognized how a child’s home life might affect their ability to learn in the classroom.  When he became part of the home visiting program, Hernandez put his own personal experience and educational skills to work.  

Why focus on fathers?

Hernandez explains that “more men need to feel comfortable talking to other men about patriarchy and masculinity.” Growing up with machismo culture, Felix relays some of the impacts and how he has done internal work to address the effects. He says, “I knew I did not want to contribute to that culture.”

The father-child attachment program’s approach

Parental knowledge of developmental stages is a protective factor and builds resiliency in children. The father child attachment program supports participants with a two-pronged approach toward that end. One prong includes tangible resources such as diapers, housing vouchers (when accessible and possible), insurance enrollment, and general stability like employment.

Once a trusting relationship and rapport is in place, the family support workers broach the second prong. They engage participants in conversations around patriarchy, toxic masculinity, nonverbal communication, father-child attachment, and more. Hernandez emphasizes how it is an opportunity to be self-reflective together.  “There is not one right way to parent,” he says, adding that what is more important is “reinforcing parenting strengths.”

 “We have seen firsthand how fathers become more involved in parenting when their immediate needs for their families are met. Felix and his team have done an excellent job building a network of support, trust, and strength for them to become the fathers they want to be for their children.”

Joan Yengo, Vice President of Programs, Mary’s Center
Participants in the Mary’s Center Father Child Attachment Program at a picnic event.

The program in action – one father’s experience

One participant’s story demonstrates how the two-pronged approach works. A husband lost his wife while she was pregnant. She primarily handled medical appointments and school for their children. She was also the primary partner in the application for U.S. citizenship. In one fell swoop, this father lost a life partner, a partner in all family matters, and the route for documentation. The family support workers at Mary’s Center were there to help the father coordinate his children’s lives with a representative who spoke his language. The team meets with fathers as much or as little as needed. The goal is to touch base at least once a month.

The future of the father child attachment program

Hernandez has several goals for the program moving forward. He hopes to grow the team and double the number of family support workers.  Hernandez also wants to help establish workforce pathways for fathers to reduce the need for working multiple jobs which can impact their ability to bond and build relationships with their children.  The small but mighty fatherhood team at Mary’s Center believe in their approach to accomplish long-term behavior change, but there are daunting challenges: compensation constraints, an administrative burden of documenting and caseload issues and battling certain cultural narratives and social drivers (particularly employment).

Emerging leaders’ nominations now open

Hernandez’s work reminds us that every day there are people like him in the health center world creating a ripple effect of positive change and wellness.  NACHC is proud to partner with the Geiger Gibson program and recognize their work as part of the Emerging Leaders program.  If you know of a health center leader like Felix Hernandez, nominate them.  You can read here for more information and to nominate someone. Deadline for nominations is December 20, 2022.