Anyone who has raised a 2-year-old will tell you: It’s a challenge.

Add in a new baby and, well, it’s doubly challenging.

Many dads and moms will agree that, at some point, they always welcome a helping hand.

Two years ago, Ricardo Vail, 25, found that help at Strong Beginnings, a Kent County community partnership that works in collaboration with Spectrum Health and other local organizations. The Strong Fathers/Padres Fuertes project is designed to strengthen families and improve the health and well-being of Black and Latino families during pregnancy and early childhood.

For Vail, the Strong Fathers/Padres Fuertes project has been what he calls a game-changer.

Vail and his fiance, Klarisa Rodas, 25, have two sons, Gareth, 2, and Kaleb, 2 months, who keep them on their toes every day.

Whenever they get the chance, they head to the park and splash pad near their Grand Rapids, Michigan, home, to enjoy some cherished family time.

“The kids love being outdoors, so we spend a lot of time with family and friends barbecuing or enjoying time outside,” Vail said.

On a recent afternoon—one of the sunniest thus far in an especially sunny Grand Rapids summer—Gareth climbed up on the colorful jungle gym at the park and motioned for his dad to join him.

“It is a full-time job keeping an eye on them,” Vail said, chasing Gareth up onto the playground equipment. “It’s a lot to keep track of—and sometimes you need a hand.”

On this front, the Padres Fuertes project has provided Vail with a wealth of knowledge and guidance, ever since Gareth was born.

“They gave me advice on fatherly stuff,” Vail said. “It’s been great to have the additional support and advice along the way.”

He and the project’s team members have stayed in touch over the years.

The team makes sure the family members are all doing well, and they’ve even helped connect Vail with books and diapers, something for which he’s felt extremely grateful as a parent of two little ones.

“They call me every so often to check in and see if I need any help,” he said.

Vail works first shift at a glass furniture company and Rodas raises the children during the day, as she’s on maternity leave.

“Ricardo is a really great dad,” Rodas said. “He’s hardworking, always puts in extra hours at work when he needs to and is very helpful with the kids.”

Rodas said Vail comes home mid-day to check on her and the kids. It also gives Rodas a much-deserved break.

Both Vail and Rodas said they speak Spanish at home, and they’re teaching it to Gareth. It’s important for them that the kids learn both English and Spanish.

“Ricardo wants the boys to go to a bilingual school to continue to learn the Spanish language,” Rodas said. “We spoke Spanish at home when we were kids and then learned English next at school. We want the same for our family.”

Padres Fuertes

Adnoris ‘Bo’ Torres, project supervisor with the Strong Fathers/Padres Fuertes project, is fluent in Spanish and English. He communicates easily with families in their preferred language.

He and his team work with men who have children ages 1 month to 18 months, providing extra support as needed.

“They can be adopted parents, biological fathers, caregivers,” Torres said. “We try to learn what things fathers need most—and help get that to them.”

Torres said his team recognizes that social determinants of health affect many families, and he tries to bridge those gaps.

The project now connects primarily with the Black and Latinx communities, with services personalized to the specific needs of each client.

“It’s how to really approach a community from a very culturally competent lens,” Torres said. “None of us get a handbook on how to be a great dad. But we do need to know how to do our best.”

The curriculum Torres uses is from the National Fatherhood Initiative, using concepts from 24/7 Dad and Fathering in 15.

“It’s about being there for the families who need us,” Torres said. “And being the resource that provides for them and educates them. To be that shoulder to lean on and someone to turn to if they need to get things off their chest.”

In dad’s footsteps

Vail credits his father as one of the strongest role models in his life.

“My dad was always taking care of us … all five of us,” Vail said. “He was always working but made time for us when he could. I try to be like him—or even better with my kids.”

Vail said he wants to make sure his kids have time to play sports and stay active in the things they enjoy.

On the fitness front, Vail sets a stellar example: He plays on a Hispanic soccer league, giving him a great opportunity to connect with his family and kids. They all enjoy watching him play on weekends.

Vail is hoping Gareth, too, plays soccer as he grows.

In fact, Vail even named him after one of his idols—acclaimed soccer player Gareth Bale.

“He has no choice but to be a soccer player when he grows up,” Vail joked.

While being a dad is a lot of work, it can also be rewarding, he said.

“I’m always doing my best to make sure they are OK,” he said. “You never know what could happen. One time, Gareth was chewing on a chip and started choking. You have to act fast with kids to make sure everything is OK.”

They’re currently working on potty training Gareth.

“He’s learning to tell us when he has to go, in Spanish,” Rodas said. “So, we’re getting there.”

The family has big plans on the horizon.

Vail and Rodas—high school sweethearts who have been together for eight years—are marrying in September.

They both credit the Padres Fuertes project with helping them on their journey, and they’re excited about the road ahead.

“The project has definitely made me a better dad,” Vail said. “It’s really been great to have the support.”