By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – A parent in handcuffs and a police car is far from a pleasant childhood memory, yet it is one of the most indelible moments in Dan Petrie’s life.
It was a vivid day in 1987 when his father was taken to jail and he and his sister were placed in foster care by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services.
Petrie, 32, did not go on to visit his father in prison and manage to salvage a relationship. There would be none. Dan never saw his father after that day. What did remain was what no child should have to endure, yet many are forced to experience.
Children of parents caught up in toxic relationships, substance abuse and crime often carry emotional problems into adulthood, falling into lifestyles of learned behaviors that also land them in jail or an early grave. Not for Petrie, however.
While some of the scars remained, he was eventually saved from further turmoil by a foster family who adopted him at 15. But, by then, many of the opportunities to learn valuable life skills as a child were lost. Dan, was not though. He earned an education degree from Rockford University, became an ordained minister, and in July 2015 started an organization to encourage local fathers.
“We lift up and encourage dads by teaching affirmation leadership,” Petrie said of the Fatherhood Encouragement Project.
With the same purpose, the Motherhood Encouragement Project blossomed a year later.
“I promised myself I was going to be what I never had,” he said. “When I had my son, it changed me. I didn’t really know what was going to look like. I just knew I had to love him. And I had to learn. Luckily, I had people investing in me–leaders in the community. I was able to build relationships with people who spoke wisdom into me, and I learned as much as I could. Eventually, I approached other fathers in Rockford, something that isn’t pursued often. I felt that was an area I could help.”
In just two years, Petrie’s project has attracted the gambit of dads, not just those who have come out of messy childhoods. The organization mentors parents along an expansive spectrum. Ex-felons doctors and lawyers are learning to be stronger, affirming parents and the group continues to grow. It meets weekly and takes part in regular community services events.
“It is about impacting people,” he continued. “We won’t do things if they don’t touch and impact people and families. By building relationships, we are able to provide a platform for others to serve the city. We’ve seen marriages restored, jobs found and relationships formed through our program.”
Those relationships are catalysts for a soundly changed city. And as organizations with similar goals come and go, Petrie said the ones with any degree of longevity will aim to transform people.
“We want to create a wholeness of families again. By doing that, will be able to keep more people in Rockford, because we are losing people every year. If we are able to build a foundation that starts with families, (this will) become a town where families are excited to stay.”
Much of what the Fatherhood and Motherhood Encouragement programs’ more than 100 parents focus on is what Petrie himself chronicles in his 80-page Christian parenting book, “The Power of You Are.”
Released in February, the book is already an Amazon best-seller. Petrie was inspired to write it after taking and later teaching affirmation leadership using principals that help parents affirm their children instead of focusing on unwanted behaviors with the word, “no,” something kids hear more than 200,000 times by the time they’re 18.
The result so far: A 100 percent success rate. It’s a bold claim but one he stands behind.
“Testimonies are coming in from families from all over the country,” he said. “One-hundred percent of the families who use affirmation and come through our program see an impact in their children’s behavior. We spend so much time telling our kids what not to do, that we forget to tell them who they are. ”
The book’s title, he said, is really a statement, instruction to communication by beginning sentences with the words, “you are.” Phrases like, “you are bold,” “you are a winner,” and “you are courageous,” affirm something positive even when children misbehave.
One of the program’s success stories involves Dan’s 8-year-old son, Brayden, who had a rough couple of years.
“He was struggling behavior-wise, and got kicked out of a Christian school.”
What Petrie realized is that his son’s behavior took a turn when Petrie and the boy’s mother separated, and that Brayden was internalizing grief.
“His emotions were all over the place. He’s young, and he really didn’t know what was going on. He just wanted his parents together. So, I started affirming him.”
Inside of two weeks, Brayden was a different child.
“Every teacher since then has said everybody looks up to him now. They do whatever he does. And that inspires me, so I am teaching dads and moms how to affirm their family every day and speak life over their children. This truly is a ground-breaking opportunity to change the course of your children’s life.”
The Fatherhood Encouragement Project held its inaugural awards ceremony in February to honor
From 6-8 p.m., June 6, the group will launch another sister program, the Generation Y Encouragement Program, with a networking event at District Bar and Grill. The session is a chance for millennials interested in networking to come together for a night of socializing.
“It is really neat to see the wide variety of individuals who have found the benefit from these groups and the relationships that are being built,” Petrie said.
District Bar and Grill is at 205 W. State St.