CASPER, Wyo. — Chris Wallace supports four kids living at home — his biological son and three step-children. He also has four other biological children, some of whom he is ordered to pay child support for.
The Army veteran, 44, doesn't qualify for food stamps, but he found that his paychecks didn't stretch very far when split among child support, day care, rent and food.
He's looking for a higher-wage job, possibly in welding, as one of six men participating in the Dads Making a Difference program. For 10 weeks, Wallace has learned to write a professional resume, to communicate with bosses and co-workers, and to cook a healthy meal for his family.
He's also learned a trade, in case a welding job doesn't surface. This year, the program taught men about facility maintenance, from landscaping and plumbing to carpentry and painting.
"It's kind of a full program," said Pam Jones, workforce training specialist at Casper College and adviser for Dads Making a Difference.
"Of course, it's about being Dad. That not only means going to find a job to sustain the family but being a better dad when you're at home."
Dads Making a Difference is run through Casper College, funded by a grant from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. There is a similar program in Cheyenne, and this is its second year in Casper, Jones said.
To qualify, men must have children — even if they don't have custody — and they must show financial need, making at or less than 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Basically, that's about the same income level as a family that qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches at school.
"It's not very hard to get at that level, unfortunately," Jones said.
The program goal is to find good, sustainable jobs for all participants. Last year, five men participated, learning about professional landscaping. Of those five, one opened his own landscaping business, one went to work for a landscape firm and another found a job in another field, Jones said.
Of the six participating this year, two have already found jobs.
"This year, we'll get them all employed," Jones said.
The program is in three components — classroom studies, on-the-job training and volunteerism.
In the classroom, men learned about personal banking, about family relationships and about changing bad habits within the family. They received a cookbook of nutritional recipes to cook for a family.
"The cookbook is like a bachelor's dream," said Jeremy Dyer, 34, the father of two children, ages 11 and 12. He is a recovering alcoholic and addict who says he is seven years clean. Through this program, he is trying to see his kids more, to prove that he is a reliable father and role model.
The men also learned to write a resume — in Dyer's case, the first resume he has ever had, he said. They learned how to search out jobs and how to interview for them. Counselors talked to the men about family issues. If needed, the men brought in their families to talk, too.
After the classroom, the men studied facility maintenance on-site at the House of Hope before the homeless shelter closed July 13 for not fulfilling permit guidelines.
Facility maintenance workers must be jacks of all trades — landscapers, plumbers, painters and carpenters. At the House of Hope, the men painted rooms, installed a new kitchen sink and built a set of stairs, calculating the rise-to-rung ratio on their own.
Chris Iselin, a construction and wood tech teacher at Natrona County High School, volunteered to teach the men basic carpentry skills for one week. He taught them to build their own sawhorses, which they get to keep, along with all the other tools needed for the program, and to use the equipment in the shop.
"With some of the skills these guys are picking up, employers out there might be able to use them," Iselin said.
The men spent the last part of the program volunteering at Habitat for Humanity.
The men graduated on Friday, but Jones and other career counselors will work with the four still looking for work until they find it. Counselors will help with the search and troubleshoot problems, such as providing a bus pass if a man doesn't have a car to get to an interview.
Alvin Riley, 41, is a single dad to a 13-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. Their mother left about 10 years ago.
He's worked as a certified nursing assistant, in retail, in maintenance and is 12 credits shy of earning an associate degree. But with Wyoming a right-to-work state, he said he found it hard to keep a job when his kids were sick or if a babysitter canceled.
"It could be anyone living here," he said during the program, standing in the doorway of the House of Hope.
"Their story is not too much different than anybody else's. One bad instance is all it takes."
He joined Dads Making a Difference to find steady work that would allow him to support his kids and take community college classes online.
As for Wallace, besides the practical help the counselors provided and will provide until he finds a job that can support his family, the program shows his son that he is trying.
"I think it's showing him that, against the odds, I'm not quitting," Wallace said.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com