One evening each June, young girls in party dresses and shiny shoes arrive at a Richmond, Va. City jail for a date with their dads. They are escorted inside by the sheriff and met on a red carpet by their fathers, who for the occasion have been allowed to trade in their jumpsuits for suits and ties.
The fathers, also sporting boutonnieres, place wrist corsages on the girls. There are hugs and kisses, photos, then dinner and finally, dancing. Strong arms embrace tender shoulders and the room is filled with the sense that something very important is taking place.
The event, called “Dance of Their Own,” is organized by Camp Diva, a group that holds summer and after school programs that teach girls leadership and entrepreneurship and basic life skills. Angela Patton, director and co-founder of Camp Diva, said the girls of the organization came up with the idea for the event.
As part of the program’s curriculum, girls study the difference between community service and real change and learn to become critical thinkers and leaders.
“They identify problems and create a project to create the type of change they want to see,” said Patton.
The girls have worked on issues such as animal rights and bullying. But about six years ago, said Patton, “They saw a lot of the social issues related to them came out of the fact they didn’t have fathers in their life.”
So the girls created “Date with Dad Dinner and Dance,” which is held annually in March in Richmond.
“The girls chose March because it’s Women’s History Month. They felt to be productive women, they needed fathers in their lives,” said Patton, who noted that the event started with 20 fathers and daughters and now draws over 500 people.
In addition to that dinner, the March weekend is full of community activities that brings out fathers and their supporters.
Darius Johnson has escorted his daughter Phoebe, now eight, to the community “Date with Dad Dinner and Dance” since she was three years old.
“I like the idea of an event specifically geared to promote a relationship between a father and daughter,” said Johnson. “Being there and seeing the fathers and daughters is a powerful feeling. I always spend time with her, but that’s a special day for her.”
The event had already become a major community affair when a couple of years ago Patton asked Camp Diva member Franiqua Davis, then 12, if she was going to attend. Franiqua said, “No.” Surprised, Patton asked why.
Franiqua, now 14, recalls the conversation well.
“I told her my father was incarcerated and it wouldn’t feel right without him.”
Patton told her the program had “fill-in” fathers, male mentors from the community who escorted girls without fathers.
“It wouldn’t feel right knowing I did not have my father with me for that special moment,” the young girl insisted.
Franiqua, who her mother said was very shy before joining Camp Diva, admits she surprised herself by speaking up about something she used to never talk about. She was also surprised that Angela Patton understood. In fact, inspired by Franiqua, the “Dance of Their Own” event at the jail was created. Patton said since its beginning, she has taken girls ages five through 17 to the jail for the memorable evening.
The fathers who participate are serving sentences for non-violent crimes like drug possession. The sheriff usually greets the girls and escorts them in, handing them off to their dads. This year the event was held on June 8. Patton said Gov. Bob McDonnell attended, leading the girls in and delivering a “Father’s Day message that was extremely supportive, not judgmental, and talked about giving second chances, co-parenting and re-entry.
“Dressed in suits, the attitudes of these grown men change,” said Patton. “Then you can hear the girls oooing when they come in and see their fathers, especially those who may have never seen them in anything other than pants hanging below their waists.
“A radio personality announces each father and daughter. The daughter is on the father’s arm and he pulls out her chair and makes sure she takes her seat.”
During the night, there are activities aimed at getting father and daughter to talk to one another and to build memories. Each father and daughter receives a journal. The daughter writes on the first page of the father’s book and he writes on the first page of hers. Each gives a video message to the other also and the messages are incorporated in a personalized CD given to each girl and father later as a memento.
“Leaving is always very emotional, but they leave with a memory and a sense of hope,” Patton said. “We always end in a circle after a Soul Train line.”
Camp Diva keeps in touch with both father and daughter. While the two are at their date at the jail, the organization also holds a special spa event for the mothers, introducing them to other support programs Camp Diva offers. All of the efforts are geared at building a healthy relationship between the mother and father, one that sustains and nurtures their daughter.
Patton is meeting with 20 wardens soon who are interested in possibly having Camp Diva put on similar events at their facilities. It’s a model she hopes will be used by grass roots organizations nationwide.
Patton knows the events are making a difference.
“I ran into a mother visiting her husband at the jail. “Inside Edition” did a story on our father-daughter dance at the jail and this woman’s daughter was in it—maybe five seconds. The woman told me they taped it and she said, ‘My daughter watches it every day before school–and when she gets home.’ It was only five seconds, but it gives her hope.”
Unfortunately, the inspiration for “Dance of Their Own,” Franiqua Davis, has not been able to dance with her father, who is in a prison hours away from Richmond. He has been incarcerated for 12 years, since she was a toddler, but he is scheduled to come home this November and Franiqua says the two of them are already looking forward to the community “Date with Dad Dinner and Dance to be held March 16, 2014.
“She’s never been to one of the dances, but she has talked to the girls all about it,” said Patton.” She saved her dance for her dad. I told her that’s some kind of love.”
Meanwhile, Franiqua, said she is “really, really excited” about her father coming home. And she is happy she spoke up when questioned by Patton about the community dance.
“It’s okay to speak up if you don’t like something,” said the tenth grader who wants to be a doctor. “You can speak your mind in a positive way and things can change.”
(Photo: Lisa Hall)