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.