Watsonville's was abuzz with children playing on Sunday morning, and there was only one piece of the puzzle missing: there was not a single mom in sight.
Instead, a group of around 20 fathers stood in a circle, their hands linked with other dads and their children as they passed a hula hoop through the circle. It was one of several activities that brought fathers and their children together over laughs during the Sunday morning "Hands on Fatherhood Program," which celebrated it's second year anniversary.
Hands On Fatherhood is part of PAPAS, a program that has been supporting fathers and parenthood while researching the best ways to help fathers participate in their families and communities for nearly a decade. The program, which began with just four fathers, has grown to help around 200 families in the past two years.
"We started this fatherhood program because our PAPAS program, sometimes there were restrictions that if you were a single dad you wouldn’t qualify for it," said project director Deurton Kebebew.
The weekly meetings begin with a free pancake breakfast, cooked by a volunteer group of fathers who come early, followed by group activities with the fathers and all of the children. The last segment includes a more formal support meeting of the fathers, which aims to help facilitate bonding and communication between fathers and their children, as well as communication between fathers and their childrens' mothers. One Friday each month, PAPAS hosts a field trip, which include places like the wetlands and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“We leave it open. So whenever they need to come, they come. Rather than feeling like they have to come every weekend we have a curriculum and we make it more focused on dads learning from dads, and honoring that every father has something to offer,” said Kebebew.
But come July 1, the program is in danger of closing down, since the PAPAS program, a research-based program, is almost at the end of its resources, and . The Fatherhood program runs on donations alone, said Kebebew, but if PAPAS is discontinued, they will no longer have the space to meet. Raising funds is crucial.
"Even if they were to close it, we would start it somewhere else," said Jose Marquez, a volunteer and one of the original four fathers to start the program. "I am so excited, I cannot wait for the next person to walk through those gates. Since I began I have met more people, I have made more friends than I ever thought I would have. Papas has oepened up a whole new life for me," said Marquez.
Some of the fathers have already begun fundraising, and Kebebew hopes that it can become a grassroots organization.
"We want everyone to have a stake in the organization. Even a $25 donation gives you a stake in the organization. Because fathers are everywhere, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, what generation you are, they’re there. But also, they play a critical role in the life of children. It’s time that we support them and also hold them accountable,” said Kebebew.
After the activities Sunday, children played while the fathers remained seated in a circle, some with their children on their laps and some alone, listening to those who chose to speak about why they joined the program and what it has done for them.
"Six years ago my wife passed away," said Lauro Melendez. "For four years I tried to live with my two children, in Mexico and in Los Angeles. The Pajaro Valley Shelter was the one who directed me to PAPAS. I feel like my life is stable now. And I want to show other dads how it helped me."
After Melendez finished speaking, Susan Olsen delivered a personal $100 contribution to the program, and Melendez added to his speach that Osorio had been instrumental in helping him to fix up the house that he lives in now, which was delapidated when he first came to live in it.
Another father, Jose Rodriguez, also gave an emotional testimony, saying, "There's been moments when I'd rather forget everything, but because of the love I have for my kid it keeps me going strong. And I know because I've noticed a big change in my child. He is happier, he smiles more, and that tells me there's a big change going on in him."
To find out more about the PAPAS or make a donation, call their office at 831-763-4699, or show up with or without your child on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at the La Manzana Resource Center, at 18 W Lake Ave.