the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Todd Christophel ’93Dad makes a difference: Working with the Fatherhood Initiative

By Rachel Lapp ’95

A Pennsylvania man whose wife filed for divorce and moved away with their children, due largely to his drinking problem, lives hours away from his kids. Referred to the Lancaster (Pa.) Family Center’s Fatherhood Initiative program by a parole officer, Phil* decides he wants to change. To overcome the barriers to his becoming an engaged parent, he travels half way across the state to pick up his children for visitations, which have increased in frequency along with his level of responsibility. While not the primary caregiver, he adopts a “dad attitude” and is an emotionally supportive father even if he can’t always be with his children.

Another father serving a county prison sentence took part in “Foundations of Fatherhood” program and his eyes are opened to the kind of father he could be to his children – even at a distance. Daniel* now calls and writes letters to his children, and plans to be the “kind of dad they never had,” according to Todd Christophel ’93, coordinator of the Lancaster County Fatherhood Initiative.

“I love seeing these guys succeed,” said Christophel, a case manager who became involved with the program in 1999, the year after it was established at the Lancaster Family Center.

The National Fatherhood Initiative was founded in 1994 with a mission to improve the lives of children by increasing the number of involved, responsible and committed fathers. State and county governments across the country are establishing chapters to urge community organizations to be more father-friendly; to provide fathers with education, advocacy and support; and to give fathers an opportunity to grow by mentoring less experienced fathers.

The hope is that, as children benefit from increased positive involvement of their fathers, communities are strengthened.

Christophel, a psychology major at Goshen who spent the year after graduation working with drug addicts and alcoholics in a rehabilitation center in Spain through Mennonite Board of Missions, said fathers have lost their identity in the 20th century.

“Before the industrial revolution significantly changed American culture, fathers were involved very differently with families. They were expected to be a provider, direct spiritual life, teach their children a trade – but fathers have become less and less involved as nurturers and more as paycheck providers,” said Christophel.
“We need to change deep-seated attitudes in order to encourage fathers to provide not just financial but spiritual, intellectual, emotional and developmental support. We don’t have a mother-absence problem in this country. There are a lot of services out there for parents, but research shows that, often, when people see ‘parenting programs’ offered, they think it only applies to mothers, so fathers haven’t shown up,” said Christophel. “We saw that programs needed to be developed for dads, and that there are also existing services that could be tailored to involve dads.”

The Lancaster County Fatherhood Initiative started with one staff member and a fatherhood class. Now, the full-time staff of three offers a variety of services.

“Foundations of Fatherhood” is a support group and 12-week education program based on the “Erie Father’s Workshop” for fathers covering values, spiritual leadership, communication, building healthy relationships, discipline and being and finding mentors (167 participants, with 34 graduates and 11 who have gone on to be facilitators, since 1999). “Long Distance Dads” is a program of fathering classes at Lancaster County Prison (450 participants). There is a mentoring program for personal advice and encouragement, a video series about communicating love more effectively and a “Dads In Training” program, reaching out to young fathers and teens.

“In the ‘Foundations’ class, I am always glad to see guys opening up and asking questions or discussing things that they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Christophel. A father might need a basic care-taking skill like diapering or counsel about the complex issue of how to build a better relationship with the child’s mother if there is estrangement (respecting the child’s mother is the first item on the Fatherhood Initiative’s “10 Ways to Be a Better Dad” list). “We get into the nitty-gritty. And a lot of informal mentoring goes on, which is exactly what we want to happen.”

Case management involves working with fathers who need one-on-one help. “We might set up a plan toward a goal – like getting employment, paying child support, working at mental health issues or anger management – and help them get the services they need,” Christophel said.

While most participants in the Fatherhood Initiative programs are referred by probation officers, mental health facilities or social service agencies, Christophel said, “We get high-income, low-income, guys who are married, those who are separated or divorced or haven’t been married to the mother of their children. Everyone can do a better job with their parenting.”

The Lancaster County program has good support. “When you have the community behind you and people who want to see it happening, it keeps going,” he said, adding that international groups promoting responsible fatherhood have gained momentum in recent years. And more help may be on the way; President Bush is interested in supporting a $186 million “Fathers Count Act” to support and educate American fathers.

“I challenge all fathers to take a check of their household – make sure you and your partner are doing everything you can to create a loving environment for your children,” he said. “Look at the fathers around you; in most cases, fathers are doing a good job, but there are times for getting involved.”

There are many ways to be father-friendly – from the personal to the political. Said Christophel, “We can do something as small as smiling at a dad carrying a child or as potentially effective as lobbying for flex-time or paternity leave for fathers.”

Christophel hopes he, too, has learned a lot about being a good father; he and his wife, Janet, are expecting their first child in August.

“I’ve asked myself, ‘What do I really know, after having studied this for three years and having read a million books?” he said. “When that baby comes, I think I’ll feel like I don’t know anything. But I know already how much I love my child.”

For information about the National Fatherhood Initiative, including information about state and local chapters, see online. Other resources for fathers on the Web include the Center for Fathers, Families and Public Policy at, the Fatherhood Project at and the National Center on Fathers and Families of the University of Pennsylvania, at

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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