Will Strength learned to be a good dad from the experience of having two daughters, Kristina and Shyanne, involved in Pocatello/Chubbuck Head Start. Beyond the immediate benefits of early childhood learning for his daughters and social activities with other kids, it was actually the parent-involvement activities that gave Strength a window into a new and different life — a better life.
As the Christmas season approaches, Strength is especially grateful looking back how the whole experience changed his life.
“I didn’t even know I was a dead-beat dad,” Strength says. “The crappiest of dads don’t know how they are coming across to their kids.”
Strength struggled with alcohol and drugs as a young married man with two kids. He struggled to hold down a job; he hadn’t finished high school. “I was in and out of jail a lot,” he says.
His wife saw an ad about Pocatello/Chubbuck Head Start in a local newspaper. She wanted to attend a parent meeting and learn about the program. Initially, Strength didn’t want to go. “It sounded like some kind of a welfare program. I told her I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says.
His wife enrolled their daughter Kristina anyway. Strength went to the next parent meeting, reluctantly skipping a pro football game on TV. They met with some other parents, ate pizza, and brain-stormed some fun activities that dads could do with their kids.
Suddenly, Strength was a man on a mission. What if they created a group called Super Dads to do activities with their kids?
“The Super Dads thing changed the mold for me; it struck a chord,” he says. “I was like, this is my program. This is my baby. I’m going to do everything I can to make Super Dads spectacular.”
One of his favorite activities was to build cars out of cardboard boxes and race them down the hallway with other dads and kids. They did these activities at the Pocatello/Chubbuck Head Start Lincoln Early Childhood Center. They also had movie nights, game nights and more.
Strength and his wife, Heather, got so busy and involved with parent activities with Head Start that they both got inspired to pursue loftier education goals for themselves. His wife started working on a college degree at Idaho State University, and Strength got his GED certificate. He also got involved in the Head Start policy council, a governing board that oversees the program.
And he stayed out of trouble.
“I learned how to function in an organization without losing my cool,” he says. “It all helped me see the value in being a better father. Without realizing it, three years went by, and I realized, I haven’t been in jail for a while!”
Now, Strength is in his 16th year of assisting the Pocatello/Chubbuck Head Start program as a parent volunteer. He works for School District No. 25 as a mechanic in the maintenance department. He’s also finishing a college degree in social work and political science.
His daughters are teenagers now. His daughter Kristina is attending Salt Lake Community College, studying fashion and design. Shyanne is a 4.0 student in 10th grade at Highland High School in Pocatello, and she’s got a job working at Papa Murphy’s.
“They have really excelled in life. They both have deep love for reading — and that goes back to the days in Head Start when I was reading Harry Potter stories to them.”
Will Empey is another dad who got inspired by Head Start activities to get more involved in his children’s education. Located in Idaho Falls, he played the role of a father who was more hands-off, and his wife, Emily, was more hands-on. They have a daughter, Mary, who’s 12, and a son, Liam, who’s 5 now.
“She was always involved, and I said I’ll show up for the parent-teacher conference,” he said. “But it’s really much better if it can be more of a team and tackle those things together.”
Empey says he was not all that interested in reading as an adult. But Head Start activities through the Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership caused him to read with his kids, and he enjoyed it. “We spent more time together, and my kids didn’t let me off the hook, they made me sit down and read to them.”
After a time, Empey saw the benefits of spending quality time with his kids. For instance, he likes to work on cars. And the kids naturally want to watch and help. Now he lets his son put the tools away in the proper place in his tool kit.
“I think we’re seeing a decline in fathers being active in their children’s lives,” Empey says. “But I find it very rewarding. Now we watch less TV and do more things as a family.”
Recently, Empey has been interested in developing some activities with other Head Start dads after learning what Strength has been doing with Super Dads in Pocatello. But because of larger group gatherings being restricted by COVID-19 at the present time, it’s not possible to organize group activities.
One thing Empey has tried to do, and Strength as well, is to encourage other dads to get involved with their kids and spend quality time with them. “This is one way I can give back and help men become better dads. I want people to know that I’m there for them to reach out to,” he said.
Strength says he will always sing the praises of Head Start because of the way the program inspired him and gave him a new reason to live a clean life. “Head Start turned my family from being close to divorce to one heck of a family unit,” he says. “It showed me that there’s a higher reason for living.”
Empey serves on the Head Start policy council for the eastern Idaho region.
“It’s important for me to do things with my kids outside, school activities or homework,” he says. “I want to have a strong role of being a father for their education,” he says. “On the policy council, I talk to other dads and encourage them to get more active in learning with their kids. They might be reluctant at first, but after they get more engaged, they’ll be glad they did.”
Bill Foxcroft, executive director of the Idaho Head Start Association, loves to hear stories like those of Will Strength and Will Empey.
“Head Start’s promise for every child to meet their full potential is grounded in a whole family approach, understanding that kids do best when both parents are involved in their children’s learning and development from the earliest years forward,” Foxcroft said. “Dad involvement is built into the Head Start model. It is crucial to their children’s healthy development, and many times, as in the case of these two men, it is life-changing for the fathers as well.”
The Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 Head Start program serves about 180 children and families in the Southeast region. The Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership Head Start program serves about 290 children and families in the Upper Snake River region. Both programs are available for families that meet low-income eligibility guidelines to work on early childhood education, provide families with community resources, and help parents enhance the social, emotional, physical and academic development of their children.