Engaging Illinois Fathers – and Dads of Special-Needs Kids

by David Hirsch

It’s our pleasure to feature David Hirsch in this week’s blog (see below). David is a longtime friend of the National Center for Fathering, ever since we met him in the 90s, and when he and the late Peter Spokes (former vice president and C.O.O. at NCF) worked to bring the Father of the Year Essay Contest to Illinois. David is a passionate advocate for children and fathers, and he’s doing some of the best work out there to help dads of special-needs kids. Stay tuned for more from David.

The issue of father absence is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our time. Research shows children growing up in father absent homes are four times more likely to grow up in poverty and nine times more likely to drop out of high school. An estimated 24 million children, literally four of every ten across America, are growing up without their dads.

Another way to think about this is based on current birthrates: three kids per minute, 193 per hour and a jaw dropping 4,640 per day will be growing up in father-absent homes. Did you know there are twice the number of white vs. black children growing up without their dads?

I was stunned to learn about these stats in early 1997, shortly after I became a father for the fifth time. I was compelled to do something about it, which lead to the creation of the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative (IFI), the country’s first state-wide non-profit fatherhood organization, whose mission is about “actively engaging fathers in the education of children.” IFI is basically a partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education, Chicago Public Schools and the Office of Catholic Education/Archdiocese of Chicago.

We learned early on that one of the most direct ways to reach the heart of a father is through the words of his children. Over the past 24 years and among a lot of other programs and events, IFI has had more than 425,000 students write authentic and heartfelt essays about their dads, stepdads, granddads and father-figures. (You can download a complimentary copy of the What My Father Means to Me Essay Booklet & Curriculum right here.)

Fast forward to today, my children are now ages 24, 25, 27, 29 and 31. More recently, I helped create the 21st Century Dads Foundation (21CD), whose mission is: “Improving the lives of children by raising awareness and resources for greater father involvement, and inspiring dads to be present; physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually.”

The signature program of 21CD is the Special Fathers Network (SFN), a dad-to-dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. More seasoned dads are matched with fathers closer to the beginning of their journey raising a child with the same or similar special need. Most of the first 400-plus SFN mentor fathers have said, “I wish there was something like this when I was a younger father.” Many describe the isolation and loneliness they experienced because no one in their family, neighborhood, friend group or workplace could relate to the experience of raising a child with special needs.

To help engage fathers, 21CD also created the SFN Dad-to-Dad Podcast, featuring stories about fathers overcoming their challenges, sharing what they learned and, most importantly, learning to accept their children for who they are instead who they wanted them to be. Simply stated, these are some of the most inspiring fatherhood stories you’ll ever hear. You don’t have to be a dad or even a man to be inspired.

Are you struggling as a dad? Do you need a little pick-me-up or way to help work through some of your own challenges? Right here you can find more than 100 episodes brimming with rocket fuel to take your fathering to the next level.

After 30-plus being a dad and dozens of those being an advocate for father involvement, beyond the shadow of a doubt, some of the best parenting on the planet is found in the families of those raising children with special needs. These moms and dads are some of the fiercest advocates! In many cases, their path is 24/7 challenging. On average, they have their priorities in crystal clear focus. They are role models for the rest of society.

The biggest take away is: you don’t have to have a child with special needs to become the best advocate for your child, but you do need to possess the commitment to help your children reach their full potential.

For more information on 21CD or the SFN, please go to 21stCenturyDads.org. If you know of a family raising a child with special needs, please share this information with them. Also, from one dad to another, take the extra step to get to know that special-needs family. It might just help you be the best father, husband and man you want to be.


Chicago native David Hirsch is founder of the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative and the 21st Century Dads Foundation. He is author of 21st Century Dads: A Father’s Journey To Break The Cycle of Father Absence, hosts a weekly Dad To Dad Podcast focusing on special-needs fathers, and has led three endurance bicycle tours called Dads Honor Rides. He has also been a financial advisor for the past 35 years. David and his wife Peggy have five children and one grandchild.


Watch the replay of the Fathering Breakthrough Event

Join Dr. Ken Canfield and a handful of friends and partners as we give an update about our efforts to inspire and equip fathers all over the world.

There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.