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Michelle Pierce

Michelle Pierce

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Finding the father [email protected] Stacy Powers didn't need to be told or lectured about his weakness.

He viewed himself as a lousy dad, even before his telephone rang and Tony Pierce's voice answered on the other end of the line.

The men were strangers.

Yet, their conversation was warm.

Finding the father withinBy Erin Rossiter | [email protected] | Story updated at 1:54 pm on 6/20/2009Richard Hamm / CorrespondentTony Pierce hands out eggs before a father-child egg toss earlier this month at Sandy Creek Park.

About 75 parents and children were at the park to play games, do arts and crafts and have a cookout as part of Pierce's Fathers in Touch program, which he established to bring dads and their kids together.Richard Hamm/CorrespondentCrowd members laugh as Tony Pierce speaks during a recent Fathers In Touch program family day at Sandy Creek Park.

Pierce created the Fathers in Touch program to bring dads and their kids together.Richard Hamm / CorrespondentPedro Perez tries to catch an egg.Richard Hamm / CorrespondentPierce speaks to the crowd during the cookout.Click Thumbnails to ViewStacy Powers didn't need to be told or lectured about his weakness.

He viewed himself as a lousy dad, even before his telephone rang and Tony Pierce's voice answered on the other end of the line.

The men were strangers.

Yet, their conversation was warm.

Powers latched on to Pierce's message: Time to get back on track with daughter Asya, 10.

"My little girl's mom had met him, and she turned me on to him," Powers said.

"I didn't even know him from Adam, but the loving embrace he gave ..." It made Powers, 39, take a step forward in fatherhood.

"I just wasn't living up to my expectation," he said.

"I wasn't doing as much as I could." But he started to after the encouragement.

Powers contacted his daughter.

They attended a camping trip last summer with other fathers and children connected by Pierce.

Today, Powers and Asya keep track of one another by phone.

At times, their chats are sporadic.

Still, that's more than they had communicated earlier.

"I slip a little bit," Powers said.

"We as parents are going to miss some things, sometimes.

I can honestly say I'm a much, much, much better dad." He's also a dad who realizes greater potential exists for him as a parent.

Powers has other children.

Reconnecting with them now is a goal.

"I know I can do better.

I know I can.

I'm trying to be a better dad," he said.

"I had good raising.

And I want to give my kids the same thing." • • • Powers' story is a typical portrait of people involved with Fathers In Touch.

Tony Pierce, an Athens resident and former University of Georgia assistant football coach, created the outreach program to address a problem he witnessed on and off the playing field.

People without their fathers present in life suffered.

It took one player's breakdown to make Pierce understand what he already knew deep inside himself.

"(The player) came into my office and started sobbing that he didn't have a man to talk to in his life," Pierce said.

The player's dad did not support his son or celebrate his achievements.

The man was jailed and battled alcoholism.

"Out of frustration, I got in contact with his dad to let him know how angry and bitter his son was toward him," Pierce said.

"What his dad told me was something that my father told me before.


He didn't know how to be a father, since his dad had abandoned him when he was young." For the player and his father, the third-party phone call led to a reconnection.

To Pierce, the similarity of their story to his own family prompted him to face a pattern.

He became more involved.

Coaching at Alabama State University at the time, Pierce told all his players of his willingness to call their dads.

He would convey their messages of hurt.

So long as they were open to forgiveness.

Soon enough, more players trickled into his office with requests that Pierce call their dads.

"Every day, no matter where I go, everyone has a story - rich, poor, black or white," Pierce said.

"I've had people in their 30s and 40s call me up who didn't have a relationship with their dad.


I heard a gentleman who was about 60 say, 'My dad never told me he loved me until I was 50.' And that was still on his mind.

"So it carries on a long, long time.


This is really a story of healing." • • • For Pierce, the story of leading dads back to their children also has become one of organization.

What started as a phone call here or there turned into creative ways to help reunite estranged family members.

With help from businesses, clergy as well as peers in his profession, Pierce established a nonprofit called coach Tony Pierce Outreach in 2004 and began planning events designed to bring dads and their kids together.

Picture days, outings and sports became natural ways for the coach to unify fathers and children.

He labeled the events under the program name Fathers In Touch.

"We use sporting events as bait," Pierce said.

"Most dads are big kids." Oftentimes, these big kids immediately respect the "coach." "(His) voice of influence opens a door that may not be (opened) otherwise," said Scott Sheppard, who serves as pastor at Cornerstone Church of God in Athens.

"What he sees in his profession keeps his motives high.

He sees the effects of absentee fathers." Sheppard is one of several clergymen who has joined Pierce's efforts locally.

While Fathers in Touch programs have been championed in Montgomery, Ala., where he formed his nonprofit, and Pierce's home in the state of New Jersey, increasing the number of outreach efforts where he lives in Athens is a work in progress.

Clarke Central High School has adopted Fathers In Touch through head football coach Leroy Ryals, who rallied his team to take part in a father-son picture day.

Fathers In Touch Days have been sponsored in the area the past several years, with a field day and cookout occurring earlier this month at Sandy Creek Park.

Pierce also has increased his number of speaking engagements, including a recent stop at the Clarke County Jail.

There, he discussed the tenets of what he refers to as "strength training" for dads.

"Becoming a better parent is a part of their counseling, something they want to get better at," said A.

Samad Tucker, a social work counselor at the jail who brought Pierce in for his "Make a Change" men's class that includes a number of fathers facing child support charges.

"I don't think there are enough programs in the world doing this." Pierce is speaking at more regional and national events and has rounded up a host of high-profile endorsements.

Among them are respected men in his professional field, including Chicago Bears' Hall of Famer Mike Singletary and Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden.

Perhaps the biggest champion of Pierce's cause is wife, Michelle, and their three children.

Michelle Pierce recalled her husband's early coaching career at the high school level being subject to many of the same personal issues.

"He had his own experiences growing up and then, of course, when he started coaching, he was dealing with these young men and a lot of them who's come from unstable homes," she said.

"Early on, we had one of his players living with us for a while." The rifts seemed to deepen for young college students entering adulthood.

It didn't matter that they could rely on better male role models, such as their football coaches.

They needed their dads.

"When you really start talking to the kids, you realize that there are things missing in their lives," she said.

"There are just some things that a mentor or coach just can't do for these kids." With a social work background and plans to teach middle school next year, Michelle Pierce witnesses the disconnect in additional ways.

Programs that promote mentors might be many, but those focused on finding and mentoring dads are relatively few, she said.

And how society handles single moms also is mixed.

Some moms are part of the problem.

"It's much more difficult to say I'm going to call the father, or deal with the mother who doesn't want you to call the father or doesn't know where the father is," Michelle Pierce said.

Bitterness and lack of communication are major obstacles.

Moms wanting to believe they can be dads, too, is another misconception.

"Who suffers?" she asked.

"The child does in the end." • • • Seeing Asya's eyes light up because her dad was present is when he realized his own impact.

"I saw how excited she was by my going," Stacy Powers said.

"There is a strong, strong bond.


I embraced it." Helping him do so were lessons about communicating, especially with his daughter's mom.

"I was the one - you (couldn't) really tell me nothing," he said.

"I learned to listen more than speak." His renewed interest started with an invitation to participate in a Fathers In Touch family day last summer.

Earlier this month, Tony Pierce hosted a similar event at Sandy Creek Park.

About 75 parents and children answered his call.

They played games, roamed a petting zoo, created arts and crafts, and sat down together for a cookout lunch.

Before they ate, Pierce stepped onto a picnic bench and offered the blessing.

"Thank you for the dads who are here, the dads who are strong, mighty and love their children and God we ask you touch them," he said.

Privately, Pierce had hoped for a greater turnout, but quickly resolved that "if just one dad comes, it's a success." He knows a coach alone can't change a dad.

He only can lead them.

So Pierce returned to his picnic bench podium as lunch concluded.

"We're here because I believe dads are great, and I believe children need their fathers.

One of the reasons I'm here is that my dad told me he didn't know how to be a good dad," he said.

"Let's help dads be better dads.


We all need training." Help with your children's homework, keep track of their grades and get to know their teachers, Pierce said.

Speak to them properly and show their moms respect, he added.

Give your children hugs, tell them you love them, live healthy, attend their games and recitals out of support.

And show them how to behave in public.

"Teach them how to buy the right pants size to wear!" Pierce screamed.

Laughter filled the pavilion.

Pierce softened his voice when they quieted.

"Teach them how to treat others with kindness," he said.

Ask your children for forgiveness.

Then, forgive yourself.

"What this is all about is healing.

It's time for all of us to heal," Pierce said, before ending his talk.

"Dads are great.

Dads are powerful.

We love you, dads."Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 21, 2009
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