It’s a warm, late spring afternoon in Manchester. Six-month-old Divine sits contently in her father’s arms, her eyes honed in on his. She’s dressed in a beautiful sparkly dress, with a pink bow and matching pink shoes.
“That outfit was all him,” laughs Divine’s mother, Grace, as she refers to the proud father, Femi.
“She is our divine blessing,” Femi states as his infant daughter continues to watch in admiration.
Seeing them interact, it doesn’t take long to recognize there’s so much more to their relationship than meets the eye. It’s a unique one, based on a steadfast love, bond and commitment to be the best father possible. After all, not every father enthusiastically dresses his daughter like that.
But Femi did. And it’s one of the many lessons he’s learned from the Our Place pregnancy and parenting education program.
“What is This?”
It was 2007. Femi and Grace, students at the same college in Nigeria, were attending the same church service. Femi turned to say hello to a friend seated behind him. But what struck him most was the young woman sitting next to his friend.
“What is this?” Femi recounts and he describes the warm feeling of seeing his future wife for the first time, a feeling that overcame him like no other way before.
Femi and Grace went on to date for seven years, two of which they were apart. Femi won a work visa lottery and spent two years working as a mechanical engineer in New Hampshire. He also started working evenings as a licensed nursing assistant (LNA) to help make ends meet and eventually became a United States citizen.
The distance didn’t stop them. The couple got married in 2014, and two years later, Grace joined Femi in New Hampshire.
For them, New Hampshire was the perfect place to settle, one that Femi calls “filled with opportunity, as long as you stay focused.” That would be his motivating guide as he entered the next phase of his life.
By God’s Grace, Two Becomes Three
Femi and Grace were attempting to get pregnant for a while, only to be met with a series of negative tests and feelings of defeat. They decided a long weekend in Canada – their first vacation in a while – would take their minds off things.
After a day of sightseeing at Niagara Falls, Femi had a dream. In it was a young baby with a head full of hair – a baby that was theirs. “I woke up confused, asking where the baby was,” Femi said before realizing it was just a dream.
Shortly after returning home, Grace was in a minor car accident. She experienced back pain, and Femi noticed she was easily getting tired. While he was concerned, Femi had a feeling they were not related to the accident. He knew this could be the moment they were waiting for.
They took a pregnancy test. It was positive.
“When I saw the plus sign, I didn’t believe it,” said Grace. “But Femi knew.”
“I was full of emotions, a dream come true!” exclaims Femi as he proudly looks back on that day.
Our Place: Strengthening Families
While they were elated with joy, they knew the challenges that came with having a child, despite both having jobs to make ends meet.
Grace and Femi heard about Our Place from a friend who also went through the program.
“When you become a father, taking responsibility is imperative,” Femi shares. “The world is a dynamic place, and those dynamics are constantly changing.”
They first entered the doors of 16 Oak Street in Manchester, one of two Our Place locations, when Grace was two months pregnant.
“We were warmly welcomed right away,” Femi says. “I knew right away that this was the place we wanted to be.”
Grace laughs. “He was surely motivated that first day. He walked in, raised his arms open and exclaimed ‘This is truly our place!’”
Our Place launched in 1982 as a pregnancy and parenting education program in a joint effort with Catholic Medical Center. Most clients at the time lacked an adequate support structure, and many times, the child’s father was not in the picture. Clients sometimes placed their babies for adoption through Catholic Charities New Hampshire.
While the fundamental challenges of Our Place clients – including those related to hunger, insecure housing, insufficient income and lack of basics needs – relatively remain the same, the client demographics and program itself, now entirely operated by Catholic Charities New Hampshire, have changed in recent years.
In 2006, 58% of Our Place clients were under the age of 20. Today, only 4% are teenagers. In 2006, 0% of clients were over the age of 26 – today, that figure is 71%. Most clients are foreign-born, including Grace and Femi.
Femi and Grace attended Our Place nearly every week, each time gaining a deeper understanding of the pregnancy and birth process. They met with the Our Place nurse educator to better understand the importance of prenatal care, coping skills for common discomforts and emotions, and what to expect with labor and delivery.
This education is especially vital for couples like Femi and Grace, who come from a country limited in health education and a much different healthcare system from the United States.
“Many of our clients lack the knowledge on modern pregnancy and childbirth practices that may seem intuitive to most of us,” said Karen Munsell, supervisor of Our Place. “Femi and Grace did a great job in understanding and overcoming those cultural differences.”
“Knowledge is key if you want to best support your wife and her needs throughout the pregnancy,” Femi talks when asked about the early work at Our Place.
“Femi was amazing,” adds Grace. “Despite working night shifts, he would always accompany me to my medical appointments, cook for me, pack my lunch and ensure I was drinking enough fluids and taking my prenatal vitamins, among many other things.”
A Divine Day
Divine was born December 18 this past year, an early Christmas blessing as her parents say.
“He was very emotional the first time he held Divine, keeping her close and not letting her go,” Grace says.
Femi was blessed not only for his new role as a father but for the confidence he found through Our Place. “I was well-equipped for whatever was around the corner,” he said.
Whether it was swaddling Divine to comfort her or holding her a particular way to calm her, Femi knew what to do because of the education from Our Place. “I learned fathers have a unique ability to relax a baby. At the end of the day, it’s all about care and love.”
Femi recalls when his mother, a nurse in Nigeria, visited shortly after Divine was born. Divine was crying, and Femi’s mother was unsure of what was happening, slightly panicking. Femi grabbed a swaddling blanket and told his mother that the baby was okay and that type of crying was typical. His mother was very impressed.
He also responded when Grace was having trouble feeding Divine, a common occurrence among new mothers. “Our Place taught me to help her remain calm, and let her know she was doing everything to be a great mother. I learned how to best encourage and reassure my wife.”
A Life Plan
In addition to helping clients navigate pregnancies, learn parenting skills, reduce the risk of childhood stressors and maintain positive family dynamics, Our Place works hand-in-hand with each family on a Life Plan. This is a customized assessment and goal-setting tool designed to help them overcome challenges and pave a more successful path forward, both in terms of parenthood and their overall life situations.
Grace’s first goal was to get her drivers license so she could go to appointments and run errands while Femi was at work. She reached that goal within two months. Now she’s working with the Our Place social worker to develop her next goal of researching education opportunities.
Femi has a Life Plan too. He is working toward his lifelong dream of becoming a registered nurse and is exploring ways to enroll in a nursing program at a local community college. He wants to work at a skilled nursing facility.
”The key difference between the Our Place of the mid-80s and 90s and now is the use of a Life Plan,” said Munsell. “We’re helping clients look at their whole family situation and together identify steps to improve themselves holistically, whether it’s economically or relationship-wise,”
As they continually set new goals and gain further parenting knowledge and skills at their bi-monthly appointments, Our Place has provided Femi and Grace with items like diapers, wipes and clothing, helping free up more financial resources for them to devote to other essential needs.
A Hunger for Knowledge
When Our Place was founded, fathers were rarely in the picture. Today, the curriculum stresses the importance of involving fathers where possible, something Femi has taken to heart. He is always by Grace’s side.
“I tell other fathers that if you care for your family, want a better life and do things right, information is your guide,” he said. “The role of a father continues to evolve and you need to know the current best practices related to pregnancy, childbirth and child development. Our Place helps you better care for your wife and become a more informed and dedicated father.”
“Femi continues to demonstrate a hunger for continually learning how he can be the best possible father for Divine and supportive husband for Grace,” said Munsell. “He loves his precious daughter and cares for her and Grace in every way. Seeing them all together is a beautiful sight.”
Faith is incredibly important for the family, and something Grace attests to Femi’s commitment to being a father.
“Femi is an incredibly proud and confident father, in large part because of what he has learned at Our Place but also how he has accepted God as his heavenly father,” she shares. “He’s always willing and eager to do more. Divine is a very happy baby, and that is much in large because of Femi.”
On her recent birthday, Femi gave Grace a onesie that said “Happy Birthday Mommy,” a gesture that touched Grace. “He continues to surprise us,” she said.
A Bright Future
For Munsell, Femi and Grace epitomize the goal of the program – to build a loving, secure and stable home for a child, while giving that child a future full of hope.
“Because we attended this program, most situations we encounter as parents are not new concepts,” adds Femi. “The staff instilled us with the knowledge and confidence to know we can handle anything that may come our way.”
Femi realizes much of the support he received through Our Place was made possible through donors. His message to them? “Thank you for your kind gestures and big hearts. Like the warm and welcoming staff at Our Place, you too are committed to improving people’s lives and helping communities. Our family is proof.”
It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Femi enthusiastically tells his friends – here in Manchester and back home in Nigeria – about Our Place, the many lessons learned and its importance in shaping him into the man he is today.
He is also eager to give back, too. Grace and Femi want to volunteer at Our Place baby showers and holiday parties held throughout the year.
“Our Place is a place to learn, grow, and belong to,” Femi adds. “It’s a place where you grow as a father, and I’m incredibly fortunate to be part of it.”
A Father’s Dream
Remember that dream Femi had while in Canada? Divine has a head full of hair, just as he envisioned.
And thanks to this divine intervention – and the work at Our Place – his dream of being the best father possible is becoming true.
Happy Father’s Day, Femi!