By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - From their view in the east stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the fathers and children who attended Auburn's 42-14 win Saturday over Louisiana-Monroe created lifelong memories.
"One of the girls was telling me she had never been in a place this big," said Dr. Katrina Akande, an Auburn University assistant professor and extension specialist. "She said, `I've never seen this many people before.' Just giving them that exposure is really good."
Akande coordinates Staying Connected, a Cooperative Extension program designed to better connect Head Start dads with their children.
Auburn Athletics hosted 125 guests from the fatherhood program for the Ole Miss and ULM games.
"One of the aspects of our inclusion program is trying to use athletics to improve the community campus and surrounding area," said Dr. David Mines, senior associate athletics director for internal operations. "I couldn't think of a better way to do that than to partner with Katrina on a program like this, to be able to influence lives."
One foster mom attended the Ole Miss game with her husband and their foster children.
"She was saying that for some of the kids, it's a once-in-a-lifetime event," Akande said. "We take it for granted that kids go to games, but some kids don't get the opportunity to attend games. Coming to an Auburn game is really exciting for a lot of kids because, for one, their parents couldn't really afford the tickets."
Staying Connected seeks to educate dads about why they are important to their children.
"We are really trying to pull fathers into their children's academic readiness," she said. "Because a lot of fathers don't really know what to do, they don't know how to engage their children's teachers because traditionally they've always been at work during the school hours."
Taking their children to Auburn football games also provided fathers opportunities to manage logistics.
"One of the positive things we're seeing is that families are trying to work out these dynamics," Akande said. "Seeing fathers talk to the mothers to figure out how they can manage the kids because some fathers have never been to a big event with their little kids. They were a little nervous about attending alone with two small kids in such a big crowd. Getting more conversations about the parenting role and how to manage when you're out with your kids is very important."
For the program's participants, the benefits may extend beyond a fun fall Saturday. Akande and Mines hope it will plant seeds that may start the children on the path to a college education.
"For some of these fathers, and some of the mothers too, they may have never been on a college campus before," Akande said. "This is also an opportunity for kids to be able to come to a college campus and see what it looks like, because for some kids it's like a mysterious place. Maybe it will have kids asking their parents, `Will I go to college someday?' It can start the conversation."
Mines and Akande will evaluate the program's success and may expand it to include other Auburn sports like basketball, baseball and softball. They may also add academic components.
"Auburn Athletics gets to hopefully improve the lives of people in the community," Mines said. "But we also like being able to partner with Dr. Akande's Extension program to provide an outlet for fathers to have quality interactions with their kids.
"Hopefully by being on a college campus it will spark an interest in parents and kids alike to think about attending college themselves if they haven't already."
Attending sporting events as a group is a good way for fathers to network with each other, Akande said. Many of the fathers' children attend the same Head Start center, but most had not previously met.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer