Lessons in fatherhood

By Joe Beck

WINCHESTER — The procession of 27 men filing into a ballroom of the George Washington Hotel on Monday morning bore the invisible baggage of incarceration and hope that their lives were changing for the better.

They are graduates of a new program created at the White Post Diversion Center to impart the understanding and skills of fatherhood without violence, without disrespect, without constant strife. Those who spoke in interviews and speeches sounded confident that the 15-week curriculum would make a difference upon their release in a few weeks or months.

The voluntary program centers on conflict resolution and communication skills aimed at helping the participants ease their re-entry into life outside a correctional facility by improving their family relationships. The curriculum also includes lessons on support system development, gainful employment, anger management, spiritual enrichment and parenting skills.

Corey Merrix, 24, called it a “great” class that he expects will help his interactions with his two daughters when he is released on Dec. 15.

“I signed up for the program so I could become a better father, to learn better communication and co-parenting skills,” Merrix said.

The audience of family members and employees of correctional and social service agencies fervently applauded a song delivered by Joshua Wright about yearning for companionship and his release date.

“I’ve been thinking about, thinking about, my freedom, wishing I could go home, wishing I could home,” Wright sang.

Wright, Merrix and other graduates are members of the first Shenandoah Valley Fathers-in-Training Institute organized by Bishop Bobby T. Hudnall, the institute’s chairman and executive director and senior pastor at Life in the Word Church of Jesus Christ.

Hudnall said the program is funded through private donors and churches, including his own.

He said he got the idea for a fatherhood program through a similar initiative that had fallen by the wayside in the Department of Social Services. Hudnall said he “picked up the shattered pieces” using a curriculum offered through DSS, “and here we are today.”

The graduation ceremony was also a reunion of sorts for the participants, all of whom were once at White Post but have since been dispersed to other diversion centers in Harrisonburg and Stafford County after the Department of Corrections announced the imminent closing of White Post.

Raymond Hamilton, the superintendent of White Post, which is scheduled to close later this month, said the diversion center’s previous relationship with Hudnall made it possible to install the program.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said corrections’ officials are planning to expand the program to Stafford and Harrisonburg diversion centers and include family members of those confined at the facilities.

Detwan Saunders, who is confined at Harrisonburg, said the lessons about conflict resolution among family members were especially valuable.

“I learned a lot,” Saunders said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com