Support for fathers-to-be – and those who already are

A number of expectant fathers watch as one holds an infant during “Boot Camp for New Dads,” a program held regionally by First Things First of Greater Richmond.


By the time his wife, Allison, was a few months from delivering their first child more than five years ago, Eric Gregory knew all about the birthing process and how to install a car seat.

But he didn’t know what to expect as a new dad.

That changed when he completed “Boot Camp for New Dads,” a three-hour program hosted by First Things First of Greater Richmond in which “veteran” dads share advice and information with dads-to-be in a casual group format.

“All the maternity classes we had taken were focused on Mom,” Gregory recalled. “This was the first class I had heard about that was for dads. It was amazing.”

The program, created by a California man and then replicated nationwide, teaches dads-to-be everything from what to pack in a diaper bag and how to hold a newborn to how to identify the signs of post-partum depression in the baby’s mother.

Each session includes a facilitator and veteran dads, who bring their infants with them and share tips and experiences with the dads-to-be. Though the expectant fathers come from all different backgrounds – from unwed teens to married CEOs – they quickly find common ground, said Gregory, who has remained involved with the program as a veteran dad and facilitator.

“This happens every time I facilitate a class,” he said. “You walk in, it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, there are all these guys, all strangers to each other, everybody kind of hunched over. And then when it starts, the dynamic changes almost immediately. In no time at all, the guys are relaxed, joking with each other, sharing things with each other.”

First Things First Board member and Boot Camp facilitator Jeff Ukrop agreed.

“It’s usually the most diverse group of men you could expect to put in a room – across culture and socio-economic range – but the thing they can all relate to is not having a clue about how to handle this baby,” he said.

“Boot Camp” is one of many programs offered by First Things First of Greater Richmond, a not-for-profit organization that works to educate and strengthen families. Boot Camp’s specific value quickly became apparent shortly after its inception locally in 2007, said Bob Ruthazer, the founder and program director of FTF.

“What we noticed was that there were lots of things for moms, but there was very little in our community for dads,” Ruthazer said. “We’ve seen over time the sort of tremendous negative impacts that occur when dads are missing from kids’ lives or emotionally absent. We wanted to encourage dads to be more involved and equip them.”

Sessions cost $25 and are held on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon several times a month at eight local hospitals, which provide the meeting space for free and also make financial contributions to the program. Boot Camp has grown primarily through word of mouth and has served more than 1,700 men since its inception, Ruthazer said.

“We had a letter from a mom [recently] saying ‘I don’t know what you did to my husband, but thank you very much!” he said.

As Gregory attests, one three-hour session can make a significant difference for an expectant father who may have many unanswered questions.

“Sometimes these young guys are holding babies for the first time at Boot Camp,” he said. “They come out of the session excited to be new dads – and they’ll be in that relationship [with their children] for their whole lives.

“It had a profound impact on me, and it continues to.”

For fathers with preschoolers and elementary school-aged children, FTF offers All Pro Dad, a national program created in part by former NFL coach Tony Dungy that is designed as a way to foster communication between dads and their children. Dads and their kids meet 10 times a year in a group setting to discuss various values, watching videos that help explain them and then having one-on-one and group conversations about them. Meetings are free, but registration is required.

During a recent gathering at the Martin’s at Crossridge, the group discussed “kindness” and the benefits of paying it forward. As a take-home exercise, each father-child pair was encouraged to put the lesson to work by paying for the person behind them the next time they passed through a tollbooth or purchased a cup of coffee, for example.

Ukrop’s son still recalls a lesson learned at an All Pro Dad meeting last October, during which the value was “humility” and attendees watched a video of NFL players celebrating touchdowns.

“At the end of it we talked about how the other team feels,” Ukrop recalled. “To this day, when he sees a touchdown, my son will go, ‘Is he being humble?’ I turn it back on him and say, ‘What do you think?’ So we’re able to have that dialogue. . . and to engage in a meaningful conversation.”

For details about future “Boot Camp for New Dads” or “All Pro Dad” classes, visit http://www.firstthingsrichmond.org or call (804) 288-3431.

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