Jerry Hager has eight children — one a step child, one adopted and some who he says he hasn't always been there for. By his own admission, he's been in trouble. Tuesday, however, was one of those concrete steps to show he wants to walk a different path with his children.

"I am here now, and that is all that counts," Hager said.

With two of his youngest children, Hager was at the kick-off of "Strong Dads" at cooper elementary school.

"My dad wasn't there, and I am on my own," Hager said. "(Being a father) is not as easy as I thought."

He's not alone in seeking out some help. More than 30 father figures showed up for a barbecue meal and the first night of Strong Dads. Each either received or will receive a duffel bag with books and toys of for their children and a book for themselves.

The program stresses playing with, reading to, caring for and talking with children. Each of those four areas was addressed briefly by J.L. Martin, who will teach a six-session class Tuesday nights starting in September.

"When I became a father I needed some skills," Martin said Tuesday night. "There is not a manual that someone gives you when you become a dad."

The program is being started using a grant from the Department of Children and Families.

From a numbers perspective Martin called the night a success. Hager called it a success as well.

"This got me out of the house with my kids," Hager said. "I work days and my wife works night. It was a pain to make it so I could come tonight, but it was worth it."

Strong Dads is a designed for families with children from birth to age five. The Strong Dads program encourages and equips fathers and father figures to promote their children’s physical, social, emotional and mental development. A dad who plays, reads, talks and cares today, supports his child’s well-being now and throughout the child’s life.

The program at Cooper's first "community trainer" is  Martin, who a member of the ministry team at Hesston Mennonite Brethren Church. One of his primary functions at the church is creating a fatherhood ministry. He jumped at the chance to work with the Strong Dads program in a secular environment.

"My vision, my passion, was to help those outside of the church to have the skills and tools that we are talking about," Martin said. "It is a good way to get that message to the community and help dads be the best dads that we can be."

That help will be welcomed by about a half dozen fathers who signed up for the six week class. Some inquired about a second session coming in January. In addition to the course, fathers asked about one-on-one mentoring and upcoming father/child gatherings which will be part of the program.

The common thread — finding a support system for fathers.

"I am new in town," Hager said. "This could help."

The grant is for one year. The program includes not only the kick off event barbecue, but a six week class for father, mentoring and group events during the year.

"We hope this is something that will be shaped for other communities," Martin said. "The plan is, we are funded for a year. The hope is that it will be renewed for two more years. The idea is to, over the next three years, is to connect with community members so after the three year grant ends that we could have this available for a broader audience."