By KYW Newsradio community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — When West Philadelphia native Joel Austin first became a father, he had lots of questions.

“I wanted to do the diapers better, I wanted to be intrigued a little more,” recalls the father of four.  “I ended up talking to some of my friends (but) they didn’t know some of the things they should do.”

So, Austin began doing research and discovered that fathers have an essential role in infant and child development.  Then, using his business background, Austin started “Daddy University” in 2004.   The company teaches fathers to become better fathers.

“Each of us has powerful roles,” says Austin.  “[Fathers] are essential to some of the needs of our children, and they bring balance to our families.”

(Austin leads a Daddy University fatherhood class at the West Philadelphia YMCA. Photo by Cherri Gregg)

(Austin leads a Daddy University fatherhood class at the West Philadelphia YMCA. Photo by Cherri Gregg)

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Studies show that children who have connections with their fathers have better grades and fewer behavioral problems in school.

Austin uses his newly founded organization to help change the African-American community for the better by helping fathers connect, or reconnect, with their children.

“It was the right thing to do,” he says.  “I needed it, and I realized other fathers needed it as well.”

Hear the extended interview with Joel Austin in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 12:59)…

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Over the past decade Austin, now a father of four, has helped thousands of African-American dads build trust, listen to their kids, or co-parent after a divorce.   The organization holds fatherhood classes at four area YMCAs, a free national fatherhood conference and events, such as its annual “Daddy-Daughter Dance,” which attracts hundreds every year from all backgrounds and cultures.

“I saw eight-year-old girls getting out of limousines,” notes Austin, “and that just sets such a precedent for little girls, and teaches them not to look for a joker but to look for a king.  It’s a big party,” he says of the dance, “but it’s more for self-esteem.”

Austin says he teaches dads how to be more than breadwinners, how to navigate conflict with the mothers of their children, and what to expect as a child experiences each stage of young life.

And those who have gone through Daddy University have found the lessons very helpful.

“The classes helped me forgive myself for certain situations and learn how to be stronger, so I could be there for my kids,” says Christopher Berrios, a father of eight who attended Daddy University classes for four months.  He says he’s already seen a change — in himself and his kids.

“The fact that my six-year-old daughter will pick up the phone and call me, just to check on me, says a lot,” he says.  “It makes me feel like a dad.”

And the Daddy University classes helped push Kevin Davis to get custody of his daughter.

“It was eye-opening,” he says.  “It enhanced the co-parenting aspect of raising my daughter — it’s been great.”

Austin says Daddy University will expand its offerings to include a mother-and-daughter tea, a mother-and-son dance, and a father-and-son dinner.  He says his vision is to help more fathers bond with their children.

“Parenting used to be such a mommy thing, now’s it’s really a shared thing,” says Austin.  “This is a vision, and it’s becoming a reality.”

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