Battle Creek

Battle Creek's Fatherhood & Family Services Hub supports fathers to nurture their children

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Marcelle Heath is identifying gaps that discourage fathers from being more involved in their children’s lives and filling them with education, support, and the occasional field trip.
A full-time employee with the Calhoun County ISD (Intermediate School District) in its Early Childhood Connections program, he says when going into homes to service families he noticed that the literature and paperwork he was providing was geared towards the moms.
“Once the dad found out that there was nothing geared toward their involvement they’d walk into another room or go sit in their car,” Heath says.
This prompted the father of three children who he is raising with his wife, Tonesha, to begin a men’s group to see what fathers could do with each other and their kids.
Before the pandemic, the parent-led group participated in activities with kids and made themselves available to help others in the community including seniors who needed help with loading groceries into their car. These efforts weren’t moving mountains, but they were showing fathers the importance of their actions to their children.
Marcelle Heath is Program Director of The Fatherhood Family Service Hub.When COVID made its presence known in 2020 the group continued to meet with some discussion about developing a name and mission for their organization.
On Saturday the community will get a first look at the newly-formed Fatherhood & Family Services Hub during a launch event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at its headquarters at 309 W. Michigan Avenue.
The organization’s mission is “to provide and organize opportunities and community partners for fathers and families to engage in sessions frequently to learn new skills and knowledge about themselves, and the development of their children,” according to the FFS website.
Though the Hub officially starts this year, Heath has been doing his work with fathers since 2021 after receiving training through Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) based in Chicago. He also trained using the Nurturing Father’s Curriculum which certified him to be a facilitator. In this role, he teaches classes and holds events for fathers.
Among the first events was a field trip to the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary in Athens with 30 dads and their children.
“That was my first time using the curriculum at that event,” Heath says. “After this, I knew I needed to do something monthly for these dads. I aligned the 12 different sections of the curriculum with the months and we went bowling and fishing, attended a baseball game, and spent time at Anybody’s Playground. At the same time, I was also teaching fathers how to be nurturing.”
Fathers who participate have the opportunity to take part in a 10-week session of Nurturing Fatherhood classes held four times each year and graduate from the Nurturing Fatherhood program. A group of 12 dads were the first to graduate in December 2023. Heath says four more fathers will graduate on Wednesday. The next session begins on April 3.
Once they graduate, they have the option to come back and serve on committees within the Hub.
Information about resources for fathers is located on a bulletin board the Fatherhood Family Service Hub on West Michigan Avenue.Since 2021, the group has grown to more than 200 fathers.
Heath says he started offering the parenting classes after learning that Michigan’s Department of Health & Human Services was sending fathers to the Women’s Co-op for parenting classes. He wanted to give men proper representation and saw this as an opportunity to create programming specifically designed for them.
FFS Hub has established partnerships with MDHHS, Child Protective Services (CPS), and Foster Care as part of its work.
“We’ve already had some successes with a handful of children being returned home to their fathers,” Heath says. “Before that, most of these dads were struggling. We have a lovely list of fathers who are working within the courthouse and advocating for those fathers.”
Attorneys have reached out to Heath to let him know how their clients are benefitting from his work.
Closer to home Heath and his team also are working with teen dads at Battle Creek Central High School and W.K. Kellogg Preparatory Academy. The FFS Hub also has partnered with the ISD’s Early Childhood Connections program.
Heath continues to work with EEC, a job he’s held for 10 years while taking on the role of Program Director with the Hub. He is the only full-time staff supported by a growing team of fathers who receive nominal stipends for their work.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is providing funding to support the FFS Hub.
“It’s a catapult and helps us provide resources, but there’s still a need to sustain this work long-term,” Heath says of the WKKF money. He encourages those interested in donating to connect with him through the Hub’s website.
The possibilities for the FFS Hub are endless, Heath says.
“I believe strong fathers equal strong families and strong families equal strong communities,” he says.
Fathers who are involved:
Enrique Rodriguez, a self-employed subcontractor, says he often was the only dad in a playgroup that he attended with his four-year-old daughter during COVID. That playgroup sponsored by Early Childhood Connections is where he met Marcelle Heath. This led to conversations between the two men about how fathers aren’t typically considered nurturers for their children or being actively involved in their lives.
Rodriguez, a volunteer with FFS, accompanied his wife to the playgroups felt like these gatherings were done with mothers in mind. For him, this mindset extended into other areas including a group for pregnant women his wife was attending where he was asked to leave because he was a man.
Enrique Rodriguez is seen with his 4-year-old daughter Aloma Blunk.“People think it’s weird. They think men shouldn’t be going to these groups,” Rodriguez says. “Some guys think it’s not manly to hug your kid or say that you love them. You can still be a man and hug your kids and tell them that you love them every day.”
He grew up with a father who was “definitely there for him.” When he became a teenager there were no hugs from his father. Rodriguez says he thinks this is because of preconceived notions about what it means to be a man and what that should look like.
His wife runs a childcare business and he says he’s only seen one father pick up their children.
“It’s mostly mom or grandma picking them up. I’ve seen more single moms than dads. They can be split up, but even then it’s the moms who pick the kids up.”
As someone who believes in the power of educating to cure ignorance and help people get out of negative spaces, Rodriguez volunteers his time with FFS to attend events in Battle Creek to let other men know what the organization is doing and why it’s important for them to actively participate in the lives of their children.
Much of this involves letting go of what’s been passed down from previous generations like the idea that it’s acceptable not to be there for your children in ways that will help them to thrive.

Enrique Rodriguez is seen with his 4-year-old daughter Aloma Blunk.“If your dad wasn’t there for you, you think that it’s OK not to be there and subconsciously you may not be there for your own kids,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t look at what society says about how men should be.”
He prefers to work with Heath and other volunteers with FFS to create their own definitions of what it means to be a father. During classes led by Heath for dads, Rodriguez will look after their children to remove that barrier to learning.
“This something I’m very passionate about. My upbringing wasn’t really the best and I felt alone and I developed mental disabilities and illnesses like depression and I felt a lot of the times like giving up and not going through with stuff. I guess it was because I didn’t have parents who told me they loved me often enough or doing good things with me. If I’m able to do these things for my daughter, she’ll be better than me and that’s what I want for her.”
Darious Davenport, says when people lament the lack of a father’s involvement in their child’s life, Black and Brown dads tend to be singled out. A Parent Leader with FFS, Davenport says he’s trying to break that stigma and show people that “We can be nurturing and authoritative and do anything that a woman can do. The male voice is very important in the household.”
The father of three, soon to be four children, had good role models inside and outside of his home when he was growing up. This included sisters and relatives.
“It gave me a different perspective on life. Even if you have one or two people say that you’re worth their time, you just realize that even if we’re from different walks of life, we’re all the same. You never know who you’ll  need to lean on.”
Marcelle Heath is Program Director of The Fatherhood Family Service Hub.Despite having a full-time job as a Material Handler with TH Plastics and being an equal partner with his wife in parenting a daughter who is seven and two sons ages three and one, Davenport has taken on a leadership role with FFS to ensure that communities in Battle Creek know of the program’s existence. 
“For kids, there’s a sense of security and consistency. They know I go to work every day, but I’ve still got to be involved and make my presence known.”
The rewards of being an actively involved dad are what he works to convey to other men. He says he definitely gets more praise than the side eye when people see him doing things with his own children.
“I wouldn’t associate myself with some dude who didn’t even want to be in their kids' lives,” Davenport says. “I can lead you to the water but I can’t make you drink it. You can’t help somebody who doesn’t want to be helped.”
Devin Welch, says the characterization of Black and Brown men representing the majority of absent fathers is a fallacy.
“I see more absent fathers be white than People of Color. I’m white myself and I see more African American and Latino dads be more hands-on and there for their children’s activities and events. They’re fighting for their children.”
Welch says he connected with Heath after he saw a Facebook post about the organization.
“I talked to my dad about it and he said I should do it,” says Welch who is raising two boys, ages seven and three months with his wife.
His generation of fathers, he says, is taking a more hands-on approach to parenting. While he saw kids like himself being raised in homes without a father, he was, but not in the traditional sense.
Welch was among six siblings, some of whom were stepchildren. During his childhood, he and his brother lived in South Carolina with their mother.  Every summer, his father made the drive from Michigan to South Carolina to pick the two boys up and bring them back to Battle Creek for a three-month stay with him. This was a sacrifice that was not lost on Welch.
“He did this on a salary of $13,000 a year and he was the one who went without food or other necessities. It was never me or my step-siblings who went without. He literally moved the world to be there for us. We were raised poor and weren’t able to go to the fanciest restaurants or take the fanciest vacations. The most important part is that he was always there.”
Information about resources for fathers is located on a bulletin board the Fatherhood Family Service Hub on West Michigan Avenue.Welch remains close to his father whose home serves as the headquarters for his lawncare business — Welch & Co. Property Management — which he operates in addition to working in construction.
Depending on the time of year he could be working anywhere between 60 and 80 hours, but has yet to miss a parent/teacher conference or other events of significance with his children. He says he knows how much his wife takes on as a mom and considers it his responsibility to stay sharp for her and their children.
“It’s really, really important that fathers are hands-on in the house. As we like to say in the group, you’re never not a father."
While there are men who think they need to brag about the time they spend with their children, Welch says they are really just doing what they should be doing.
“There’s been eight generations before us that just did it,” Welch says.
His own father is an example of this and has never given Welch unsolicited advice about how he and his wife should be raising their boys.
“Everybody is trying to tell you what to do. My dad let the world know that ‘I’m a father and these are my cubs.’ I walk the same way that he did and think that all of the children I see are my cubs.” 
Jahkeem Stone’s father passed away when he was almost three years old.
“Growing up, I knew my mom would always be there to protect me,” he says. But there were times when he wasn’t so sure about this.
When he was in elementary school a group of girls were throwing things at him and his brothers and verbally goading them. Stone says he let his emotions get the better of him and threw a football which hit one of the little sisters of one of the girls.
“The dad came over and was upset and telling my mom she needed to whoop our asses. My mom was defending us but I knew there was nothing she could do if he came after us.”
As a small child, he remembers being sad and asking where his father was. Somewhere between the ages of eight and 10, he learned that his father made choices that led to him being killed.
“He didn’t have to do the things he was doing,” Stone says of his father. “I knew early on that I wasn’t going to live a risky life and when I had children I would be there for them.”
He co-parents his son, age 6, and daughter, 4,  with his ex-wife while working a full-time job as a Forklift Operator with Magna International and more recently a Parent Leader with FFS. In this role, he works to get the word out about the organization.
Some people, he says, express surprise that there is a group of men trying to connect with the community.
“The other reaction is just general intrigue and support. They see us doing what we’re doing. I’ll be walking downtown with my kid with flyers that I hand out. Some people say they can’t help me, but I know from their responses that I have their utter support.”
Stone met Heath on a field trip two years ago to the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary in Athens that Heath had organized. He took both of his children and had an opportunity to talk with Heath about his fatherhood initiative.
“Right then and there I knew that if (Marcelle) was going to be doing these field trips I was going to keep bringing my kids,” Stone says.
These activities eventually jettisoned him into the work he’s now doing with FFS.
After becoming a father, Stone says he realized how important it is to have fathers in their children’s lives and for dads to have role models who will help and support them. Children, he says, need to have confidence in knowing that their father is always going to be there for them.
“I remember when my son was born. When he was in utero I was excited and I wanted to prepare for him to be here. I was just latched on to him after he was born. I’d often talk about it with my mom and friends and I’d tell him that I didn’t understand how someone could have a child and not be there for them. Every dad is their kid's superhero.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.