A typical late-afternoon scenario unfolds at a D.C. day care center as parents arrive to pick up their children.
But there is a difference for the parents at Bright Beginnings Inc., an organization that helps families who are homeless or underemployed with work development and child care for infants and toddlers.
After noticing how many fathers were coming to pick up their children, the organization began in September its Bridging the Gap program, a 12-week workshop series for fathers that aims to add another layer of support in keeping parents and children on the right track
One such set of parents, Ward 8 residents Dontike and Renikia Miller, live in the Woodland community and have two children currently in the Bright Beginnings day care program, with one or both usually coming to pick up their afterwards.
The couple, who have a blended family with eight children, both have an individual history with the organization, before they met on a Metro bus 10 years ago and eventually married.
Dontike’s 9- and 11-year-old daughters were in the day care program, and from the beginning, he was a strong advocate for the organization’s father-based programs. He saw many fathers like himself coming to pick up their children from day care.
“You know when you see a father and when you see a sperm donor,” he said. “[Bright Beginnings] knew I was a father.”
When his children were part of the day care program, Dontike observed them in the classroom, went on class trips and talked to the staff. He was an engaged parent, but there were no specific activities for fathers like those for mothers.
“I grew up without my father,” said Dontike, who spoke of how his mother was a crack addict. “I don’t want my kids to grow up with that same neglect and emptiness that I felt.”
Before Renikia met Dontike, she and her four children also frequented Bright Beginnings. After becoming homeless when she left her abusive first marriage, she struggled to find employment and to care for her children, but credits the organization with assistance to find proper testing and programs for two of her children.
Bright Beginnings scheduled an assessment for Renikia’s autistic son, who was non-verbal at age 4 and had been passed over for testing. For her daughter, now 14, the organization scheduled an early evaluation, which led to a diagnosis of emotional challenges and enabled treatment to begin.
After their fateful bus meeting, the couple dated for a while. They had a child together, broke up and reunited six years later. During the time apart, Renikia and her children moved to Texas where her mother lived. She got a job, moved into a corporate training program and became a homeowner.
Renikia began dating but ended up in another abusive relationship. Upon returning to D.C., she reconnected with Dontike and saw how he had grown and was looking out for their children. They reconciled and married three years ago.
Dontike marveled over what he has learned in the first half of the 12-week program, particularly in dispelling the notion that caring for children is a woman’s job.
“They showed me that it is OK to be in your child’s life,” he said. “It’s not just the mother who can change a diaper. I can change a diaper and take my children to a doctor appointment without their mother.”
Dontike said he has a better understanding about how his behaviors and way of speaking were formed. He had a breakthrough during one of the early sessions when he realized his way of talking was modeling what he was exposed to while growing up.
“I’ve said that I have a problem with speaking because I heard blunt, profane language growing up,” he said. “It grew inside of me. I might not always use my full vocabulary. I have to watch how I talk around my kids, so that cycle does not continue.”
He went on to recall what some of his male friends outside of Bright Beginnings have said when they see him with his children.
“‘Oh, you got your kids, ha-ha,'” Dontike said is the typical ridicule he receives from his buddies, to which he responds, “No, I’m bonding with my child. How about you?”