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From Dad at 16 to CEO Inspiring Men to Lead

I want men to know how incredible their presence is in the lives of their children. As a father, I discovered that my sons loved me just the way I was. I didn’t need to possess expensive clothes, shoes, cars, or objects. I only had to be me.

Cole Williams was 16 years old when he first became a dad. The experienced transformed him as a man, and it changed his life forever. Cole knew he wanted to be a role model not just to his son, but to other fathers as well, helping them discover and embody the values of what it means to be a good father.

Today, Cole is the founder of the Son to a Father program, a 12-week program designed to help incarcerated fathers improve and re-build relationships with their children after years of separation. Cole facilitates the workshop with his two young adult sons at the Ionia Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Michigan. Below, he shares what his journey has taught him about manhood and why fatherhood is not a one-size-fits-all role.

I have a barrage of emotions in each breath I take when I reflect on my experience as a teen father. I am vulnerable to its heartfelt truth, and its journey, as it truly changed the trajectory of my life.

I was only 16 years old when I became a dad. Nathan Andrew Williams fearlessly took his first breath at 9:55 a.m. December 30, 1994, and like most babies, he began to cry.

The doctors placed him in my arms and I spoke to him first. I held him and welcomed him into the world. When he heard my voice, he instantly stopped crying. I smiled because I knew that he knew me. He happened to look up at me as to say, “I see you dad!” and I instinctively became aware of the type of father I wanted to be.

My life changed that day as I realized just how much I needed my own father. I needed my father’s voice, his wisdom, and his truth. His voice had never gotten the chance to echo through me. I can remember sitting in the hospital room for hours searching for parts of him in me. I needed direction. I needed my father’s comfort and his reassurance. But, the truth of the matter was that my dad had gone missing the night of my conception. Now, here I was: 16 years old and now a father with a son of my own.  My story is about rescuing the fatherless boy in me and my 32-year wait to hear my father’s voice affirm my birth.

The Son to a Father Program I created birthed from my story of being a 16-year-old teen single father, to becoming a foster and adoptive father, to finding my biological father at the age of 32. My journey to parenthood led me to our work inside detention centers, prisons, and halfway programs for fathers recently released from incarceration.

The Son to a Father Program was created from the stories of countless sons and daughters who longed for a relationship with their father. My two sons joined me on my quest to restore men who had known the absence of a father’s love. We hoped that by showing them what love looks like through our relationship, it would give hope a chance to develop within them and that in return, fathers would see their true value and return home to their children as healthier fathers.

The greatest misperception is that these incarcerated dads don’t care about their children. I have discovered that that’s just not true. Many of my fathers don’t always have the skills, knowledge or abilities to take on the role of fatherhood. Some may have a distorted definition of what it means to be a father.

Many of the fathers we teach have what I would like to call low-fatherhood-esteem. What I mean by that is that they have experienced the absenteeism of a healthy and balanced father. Or, they have been bashed and shamed by their families and their communities for not living up to the variety of meanings and definitions of how a man should be a father. We also show dads all the research and the scientific evidence of the importance role they play in the lives of their children. Many men just don’t know their true value.

I want men to know how incredible their presence is in the lives of their children. As a father, I discovered that my sons loved me just the way I was. I didn’t need to possess expensive clothes, shoes, cars, or objects. I only had to be me.

It took me years to realize that I didn’t have to perform. I didn’t have to conform. I didn’t even have to pretend. I just needed to be a vessel of physical and psychological safety, meaning my sons needed to trust that they could be themselves without judgment from me. They didn’t have to perform, conform, or pretend for my attention, approval or affection.

I hope that fathers who enter into my work walk away knowing that being a man of their word is a value and creates trust. Modeling the values and expectations they ask of their children is transferable. Being disciplined in one’s actions and behavior can be practiced. Making mistakes is OK. And, most importantly, you don’t have to be perfect.

I often failed in different stages of my evolution. I didn’t have to hide my mistakes and failures from my sons, as they often watched me make mistakes. Lastly, I hope to impart the importance of loving children without conditions. My sons wanted to know that no matter who or what they became, who they loved, what faith they practiced or what mistakes they made in life, that I would always welcome them with unconditional love.

I challenge fathers to remove their masks and become transparent. My sons and I invite dads into our lives by vulnerably sharing our hurt, disappointments, joys, and discoveries as a family. I teach dads that the best of them has already been discovered by their children and the parts of self that a dad struggles with are already healed through the loving relationship that children want, need, and desire to have with him. So, fathers have to show up mentally, spiritual, and open to their children.

What can we all do to help support the type of men I work with in becoming better fathers? We can stop boxing fatherhood into a one-size-fits-all ideology. We can practice grace and mercy on fathers.

I am not saying that we don’t hold a man to a standard of responsibility to his family and children. I am saying that fatherhood is a relationship with a lot of interconnected parts that can’t be perfected once a child is born. It’s an evolution. We can support programming that provides fatherhood education and supplemental support, as dads need services, too.

Encouraging dads can go a long way.

Photo: Cole Williams, center, with his two adult sons, Derrick and Nate.