By Kodi Baughman
Some of the earliest childhood memories I have involving my father include talking to him — a stranger — through a phone call. I did not truly understand the value or importance behind those calls, and it was awkward being told to say “I love you” to someone I really did not know. My father was incarcerated when I was only 3 years old and did not get out until I was 8 years old. I remember seeing my siblings create relationships with their fathers and being jealous that I could not. I felt alone because my father was not around, and I searched for that relationship. I tagged along with my siblings when they would do something with their fathers, but I felt like a burden. I felt like I was intruding on their time, but I just wanted to be a part of the relationship they had.
In my search, I found others who stepped into my life to fill that void. My little sister’s father, Justin, played a huge role in who I became. I was not an easy child; I made it very difficult on my mother. Once, a simple bet changed my direction. Justin sat me down and bet me that I could not wake up and go to school with no issues throughout the day. He said if I were able to, he would pay me $20. I made it through the day without a single problem and realized that life can be a lot easier if I just do the right thing. That simple gesture changed who I was. I understood that I did not need to make life harder on myself by acting out, and that I can make the right decision if I choose to.
From there, I started living my life by this. Justin took a simple moment to sit down with me and talk about my decisions. He did not yell. He asked me if I could do this for him. After that, my grades went up, and I stopped getting in trouble at school for silly things. I started putting effort into my education. This led me to maintaining a 3.6 GPA or higher throughout the rest of my education. I graduated from high school and college with honors. I now have a bachelor’s degree in human services and a minor in psychology from Upper Iowa University. It all started with a silly bet Justin made to me in the second grade.
In third grade, I started spending time with my best friend and spent most of my summers with his family. They treated me like one of their own, taking me on vacations and out to dinner. They always paid for me without hesitation because they knew my family could not afford those things. My best friend’s father, Curt, never had to have a conversation with me to fill that father role. He just showed me how a father was supposed to be with his kids. He was there for me, never treating me differently, always showing me love as if I was one of his own. He showed me how the little things, such as just being there, can make a difference. I feel like sometimes foster dads really struggle to make a connection, in part because they try too hard. Curt never had to try. He just showed me repeatedly that he was going to be there for me no matter what. When I needed something, he was there without hesitation. He supported me in the decisions I made and celebrated my success along the way.
When I was 8 years old, my father was eventually released and came home. I was so excited for this moment, because I finally felt that I was going to have a dad. When we pulled up at the airport, I just sat in the backseat, my heart racing. He got into the car, and we exchanged very few words. It was silent and, honestly, sad. I realized that him being home did not mean we had that relationship. He was still the stranger I talked with over the phone. I thought maybe it would be like in the movies, and we would be everything I wanted as a child. But unfortunately, I had to learn that life does not always work like that.
My father and I had to work to build that relationship. It took years for us to really understand each other. We were so much alike that we butted heads a lot. I resented him because he did not give me the individual attention I wanted. I felt as if he cared more about my brother, who was the star athlete. So, I tried to become someone I thought my father wanted me to be. It was not until I was 16 that I figured out that my father did truly care for me. He stepped up for me in a moment when I felt really lost. I was broken, and I remember looking into his face and seeing so much pain in his eyes because I was hurting. I will never forget that moment. To this day, that is when our relationship finally changed. I finally felt like he was there for me. He showed me what it meant to be a parent being there for me when I felt like I could not turn to anyone for help. I was truly helpless, but him just being there helped me through it.
The main thing I want people to understand is that filling that father role isn’t only about blood relation. Simple gestures can go a long way — like they did for me. I did not need someone to buy me things, I just needed someone to be consistent in my life when I needed them. You can be that one person who can change a child’s life by simply putting in effort. Keep trying, even if you feel like it isn’t making a difference. There will be one time they need it — and you’ll be there. That can change your relationship with that child forever.
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Kodi Baughman is a Breakthrough Series Collaborative facilitator, certified Family Team Decision Meeting Facilitator and a Youth Transition Decision-Making Team Facilitator for the Children & Families of Iowa/State of Iowa. He is member of the Foster Care Alumni of America. He is a co-leader of the National Policy Committee. He is a former member of the National Foster Care & Alumni Policy Council where he developed policy recommendations to change the child welfare system for foster youth across the nation. He is also involved with assisting the Building a Better Future Training while advocating for youth, parents, frontline workers, and foster parents to work more effectively together to create better outcomes for children and families. Baughman is a member of Iowa Cultural Equity Alliance, Community Partnership for Protecting Children, and he has worked extensively with Youth Policy Institute to elevate the youth voice across multiple systems. Baughman earned an associate’s degree in human services at Des Moines Area Community College and a bachelor’s degree at Upper Iowa University.
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