When a group of men get together on a Thursday evening in Westminster, the topic of conversation is not the Orioles, upcoming elections or work.
These men are working toward becoming better dads.
The 10 to 20 men who meet are part of Dads Works, a nonprofit in Westminster that helps men become better, more involved fathers.
Executive Director David Berry said that better fathers mean stronger families and stronger families mean stronger communities.
In 2000, the Carroll County Department of Social Services (DSS) recognized a gap in services and decided to fund a program that would help fathers understand the importance of being present and active in their children's lives, according to Berry.
The department partnered with Human Service Programs of Carroll County (HSP) to create Dads Works. The program was primarily funded by DSS and housed at HSP. Berry was hired to run the program.
Berry said that a Bachelor's of Divinity degree from Antioch University International and almost 10 years working as a pastor in North Carolina and Pennsylvania helped prepare him for the work he would do at Dads Works. In addition, he has been married to his wife, Diane, for 33 years and has raised two children, Crystal, 25, and Tim, 24.
But by 2010, Berry said, DSS could no longer fund the program, so Berry — committed to the work he had done in creating a curriculum specifically for the men he was working with and dedicated to helping fathers — decided to turn Dads Works into a nonprofit that was no longer under the umbrella of DSS and HSP. Berry is the executive director the and only paid employee.
The program includes weekly meetings on Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings. Berry said the 90-minute sessions are designed to be like a support group where all information is confidential and no one feels judged.
During the meetings, Berry discusses topics from the 24-week curriculum he developed. The curriculum consists of four six-week parts on fatherhood, anger management, general parenting and communication/relationship skills.
A Westminster resident and father of five, ages 9 to 13, Mark Wiedel said that Dads Works has helped him build relationships with his children and understand how to effectively communicate with their mother.
"A lot of times, people feel a lot of anger and frustration going through [a divorce or separation]. This program helps you learn how to channel that anger in positive ways," Wiedel said. "It's really important to this group of guys who are going through a struggle in their life involving their children."
Wiedel said he was referred to Dads Works by DSS several years ago. Although many participants complete the 24-week program and move on, Wiedel said he continues to attend meetings as his schedule allows because he finds the support and guidance so helpful.
Joe Horecni, of Manchester, finished the program just over a year ago. He said he was referred to Dads Works by a court as he was working through a situation involving his girlfriend. The father of three said that what he learned in the program has been invaluable.
"The program taught me to be more understanding of how [kids] think and how I should start thinking about how to go about resolving a problem, rather than yelling and screaming," Horecni said. "It taught me how to interact with kids, like the importance of being face to face and getting down on the floor to play with them."
Berry has expanded the program to serve fathers incarcerated at the Carroll County Detention Center.
Mike Misterka, a retired DSS social worker, volunteers to go to the detention center and offer a condensed version of Dads Works to inmates.
The biggest challenge, of running Dads Works, according to Berry, is funding. Dads Works is currently supported by fundraisers, donations and occasional grant dollars. The organization's biggest fundraiser is the Daddy - Daughter Dance held in May.
Dads Works has always been offered at no cost to the men attending the program, but Berry said that will change. Starting in July, Berry said that there will be a sliding scale fee that men will have to pay to be in the program.
In 2013, 35 men completed the program. Berry said he wants to do more.
"My greatest joy is seeing a father who has overcome a barrier and become a more successful, responsible dad," Berry said.
When DSS was funding the organization, he said there was money to do more interactive, family events like an annual Father's Day picnic. He said these events were important to give fathers the opportunity to spend time with their children and families at little to no cost and in an environment where they would feel comfortable.
Berry said he would also like to eventually offer similar support to moms.
For information, go to dadsworks.org.