When Dennis Walton asked the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative for help 11 years ago, he didn’t expect to find a home. The mother of her three children had left him, taking them with her. He was depressed and alone. But the initiative has helped him turn a negative into a positive, as it does for 1,000 men every year. Now co-director of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, Walton has shared custody of his two sons, aged 14 and 5, and his daughter, 13.
The organization’s services include driver’s license recovery, child support debt reduction, education and men’s health. The initiative also holds an annual event that brings together men to discuss the impact of fatherlessness and seek solutions.
Q: Who has had the most influence on you as a leader?
A: My father, Alfred J. Walton; he’s passed away now. I never realized how important the role of a father was until I started doing this job. I was fortunate to have a father who loved me and was always there for me. I took it for granted that this was just the norm – that everyone had their dad in their life. It wasn’t until later, when I started to see so many voids in other people who didn’t have a father, that I realized where my strength and inspiration came from.
Q: What difficulties led you to do this kind of work?
A: When I first had my kids, I didn’t realize the ups and downs that come with relationships and being a father. The mother of my children had left and had taken our children with her. It was something I didn’t expect to happen. It was probably one of the darkest times of my life, not knowing where my 3 or 4 year old was. I had the opportunity to come to this organization because of my personal problems.
Q: Has it made you better at what you do today?
A: I learned in my time of darkness that there were hundreds and thousands of men going through the same thing. It comforted me a lot. Often times when you go through something you think it’s all about you. When I started to learn from other men and listen to their stories, I realized that some of their stories were much worse than what I was going through. It motivated me to correct my situation and remain consistent and diligent in getting it through. This experience that I had in my darkness and my depression prepared me to be a leader and to help other men not to go through these same challenges. I said, “I have to turn this pain into something productive.” This is where I got involved in working with fathers.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge you face today?
A: Myself. I think it’s easy for us to look outside of ourselves and point our fingers at the outside things that are happening. It’s hard to be able to identify where you need to grow within yourself – put yourself in a place where you don’t complain or blame. You have to constantly take action and responsibility, grow and become more aware and in tune. We need to challenge ourselves to stick to these things constantly due to the seriousness of the issues in the community. For me, it is important to make sure that I am feeding myself.
Q: What’s your favorite part of working with the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative?
A: We just had our 11th annual Fatherhood Summit. We have helped over 1,000 men to some extent improve their lives or remove barriers so they can become stronger men for their families. I have been fortunate to always be successful in the areas I focus on. I am motivated by my consistency in doing good work in the areas I focus on and, in particular, in being a servant of people. I never lost my desire to trust and take care of people. I am always able to give and know the joy that comes with it.
Q: What advice would you give to the one who will replace you one day?
A: I would tell them to know each other. Know your shortcomings and be honest about them. Don’t approach people in a way that you are better than or above them, but align with them. When you work with fathers, you can grow with them. I would also say that good character, integrity, humility and other traits related to healing are very important. Anyone who would step into this position should embody these traits. They would need to understand that we have a community that needs to be healed, and to do that you have to come from a very genuine and genuine place.