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Fathers helping fathers: the health department program
Connecting and Supporting Milwaukee Dads

Harold Hudson II with son Harold Hudson III

Since 2016, the DAD Project, offered by the City of Milwaukee Health Department, has worked to strengthen the bonds between fathers and their children. Through weekly in-home visits and group sessions, the program supports Milwaukee fathers in engaging in early literacy activities, tracking their child’s development, and building a community of fathers.  

Inside the City of Milwaukee's Office of African American Affairs on Fond du Lac Avenue, just off Capitol Drive, Harold Hudson II is beaming. He’s holding his 10-month-old son, Harold Hudson III, in his lap.

“Look at his new teeth coming in,” Hudson proudly comments, while looking down at his child. Baby Harold’s mouth is open, slightly drooling, as he gazes around the bright room.  

“He’s definitely worth the wait. People think, ‘Man, Harold. At 40, what is you thinking?’ But he’s definitely worth it.” 

Hudson’s journey to this moment has been filled with life lessons. At 18, he committed armed robbery, leading to a ten-year prison sentence. During this time, Hudson missed the birth of his daughter and lost his younger brother to gun violence.  

“I’ve hopefully done enough prison time for everyone I know. I was young and dumb,” Hudson said.  

During his incarceration, Hudson focused on self-growth through various programs offered behind bars, learning how to process his grief and trauma.  

Not long after his release, Hudson learned he’d be a father again. He began searching for community groups to help support a father like him, learning how to care for a baby for the first time. 

That’s when he discovered the Direct Assistance to Dads (DAD) Project, a program offered by the City of Milwaukee Health Department.   

“I found out that (Harold III) was on his way and I just jumped on it,” Hudson said. “I knew I might be operating as a single father and would have to do some things on my own. I took the initiative and I called.” 

The DAD Project is a free, voluntary program for Milwaukee fathers and their families with children under the age of 3. It provides home visits using the evidence-based Parents as Teachers home visiting model to offer parental support, identify potential childhood delays, and enhance school readiness. 

“We are fathers helping fathers, so we have a unique perspective and understanding,” said Mario Drain, a Fatherhood Involvement Specialist with the DAD Project. “It’s easier for us to relate to the population that we’re serving, and they’re more receptive to us.” 

Drain said after developing a relationship with each dad, specialists construct a care plan curriculum filled with professional and personal goals for the father and their child to accomplish.  

Through casual conversations in the home and structured activities, specialists build strong connections with the dads and help track their child’s development.  

“If there’s no relationship, there’s no trust, and the trust has to be there because we are a home visiting program. We come into people’s houses, they don’t want to be judged,” Drain said.  

The Impacts of Mental Health and Family History on Fatherhood

Building a relationship with dads also involves assessing their childhood experiences and trauma. During home visits, DAD Project specialists discuss the father's mental health, upbringing, and connections with their own parents. 

“How we were raised, and things that affected us when we were coming up, (have) a direct impact on how we parent our children. It’s good to be aware of certain triggers, certain traumas, to keep an eye out for,” Drain said. 

Hudson points to his own father, the man he named his son after, as a benchmark for what a good dad can be.  

“He was present on weekends and on vacations. He was there in my life. I don’t want to give (Harold III) any less. That’s what keeps me going, just wanting to be a dad like the example that I had with my dad,” Hudson said.  

For Drain, he credits the lessons he learned from parenting his own five children in helping him guide other fathers.  

When asked what makes a good dad, Drain paused before answering.  

“No one’s ever asked me that before,” Drain said. “A good dad has patience, is always willing to learn new things and try different things with parenting. I think a good dad shows up every day, even when they don’t want to.” 

Drain says regardless of what the enrolled fathers are going through, each of them shares a common goal: to be the best version of themselves and the best father for their kids. 

“They want to do more than just provide. They want to have secure attachment with their families. They want to be in relationships. They want to be able to have conversations with their kids about any and everything,” Drain said.  

Encouraging Results 

Since kicking off in 2016, the DAD Project has supported 180 Milwaukee fathers in reaching their goals, with the majority being Black men. In the last year, 100% of participants reported engaging in early literacy activities with their kids -- reading, telling stories, and singing songs – resulting in stronger attachment and increased fatherhood engagement across the board.  

The program serves as part of a critical response to urgent needs faced by families of color in Milwaukee, where access to stable employment, adequate and affordable housing, nutritious food, and quality schools is disproportionately limited.

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, dads who are involved in their children’s lives predict numerous positive outcomes for the parents and kids. An involved father leads to stronger relationships with their partners, better physical and mental health for both the fathers and their children, and lower risks of poor childhood outcomes.  

In addition to establishing and reinforcing parent-child bonds, the DAD Project connects fathers to other community resources, like job opportunities and healthcare options. The program also links enrolled fathers to each other, gathering once a week for group sessions.  

“(During group sessions,) we talk. We share our ideas on fatherhood, our likes, our dislikes. We get advice from other fathers. Sometimes we get grandfathers, older generations of dads, who share information and tips,” Drain said.  

Hudson says the home visits, group sessions, and resources provided through the program have offered significant support.  

“I like the transparency of it. I’m honest about my situation. I’m willing to humble myself for any help that be provided for me and they have helped me since day one. Any information that I’ve needed, a lot of baby stuff like Pack n’ Plays and cribs,” Hudson said. “The guys in the support groups, they come from different backgrounds. It’s nice to share with them some of my experiences on navigating probation and parole, just surviving. I find myself talking to them a lot and giving them resources that I have.” 

“Fathers don’t have enough men that they can talk to or trust with their issues, but I’m stronger now. I’ve been some places and I know if you don’t ask for help, you’ll never get it,” Hudson said.  

Interested in enrolling in the DAD Project?

Learn More about DAD Project

Sign Up for a Home Visit

or call MHD’s central Intake and Referral line at (414) 286-8620 for more information. 

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