Michael Peña with his wife Lorraine Sanchez-Peña and nephew Elijah.
Michael Peña with his wife Lorraine Sanchez-Peña and nephew Elijah. - 
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If you work in social services in a town like Cheyenne, Wyoming, guys like Michael Peña are a big chunk of your budget.

“I’ve been in and out of prisons and jails,” Peña, 35, says. Drug possessions, drug charges. It's been a rough one, man.”

Peña’s not a tall guy, but he’s encased in thick muscle, and he has tattoos running all the way up to the top of his bald head. Up until a few years ago he sold drugs with a local gang. Taxpayers shelled out a lot of money to pay for his prison stays and frequent trips to the local emergency room. He worked some shifts at McDonald's and on construction sites, but nothing really stuck. He was too ticked off all the time, something he says he got from his dad.

“He would go to the bar all night,” Peña says. “So I would never really see him unless he was pissed off or angry. Everything I learned, I learned from the streets.”

But then Peña’s sister got locked up, and he got custody of his 5-year-old nephew, Elijah. He was working construction at the time, and one of his buddies told him about Dad’s Making a Difference — a federally funded training program for low-income fathers.

Peña signed up for the free welding lessons. But the first week of class is spent with instructor Chuck Skinner, a psychotherapist. During one session Skinner has the class trained on a big paper chart. A black line divides it horizontally, and the top half is filled with words like “gratitude,” “create” and “chose.” Below, red letters spell out a different kind of vocabulary: “anger,” “fear” and “pain.”

“We can call them ‘life shocks,’ ” Skinner says as he squeaks his marker across the paper. “They are just going to happen.”

From there it's on to Freud and a brief overview of psychoanalysis. No welding tools in sight.

Michael Peña and his nephew Elijah.

Michael Peña and his nephew Elijah. 

It may seem like a college psychology lecture, but lessons like this one on how to handle your emotions are more than 50 percent of the Dads Making a Difference curriculum. Since 2010, the Obama administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding similar fatherhood programs around the country. 

Chris Wiederspahn, the Dads Making a Difference director in Cheyenne, says most guys are drawn in by the promise of job training, but the softer stuff often turns out to be just as important to long-term stability. Wiederspahn says the skills you need to deal with a crying kid aren’t so different from what you need to deal with a frustrating boss.

Almost all of the guys who enroll in this program are felons or recovering addicts. But nine out of 10 in the Cheyenne program found jobs after graduating in the last few years, and most saw their wages go up by more than 50 percent.  

“You can’t separate being a better dad [from] being a better employee,” Wiederspahn says. “And a better citizen, and not going back to prison. They are connected, it's all connected."

This is a pretty big shift from when fatherhood programs took off back in the 1990s.

“A lot of the initial work was really focused on getting these guys jobs to pay child support,” says David Miller, a manager with Fatherhood.gov

But Miller says even if those dads could land jobs, they often struggled to keep them, or didn’t end up spending any of their paycheck on their kid. That’s why Miller hopes that combining job training with life skills is a smart bet in the long term for the dad and for the taxpayer.

“Addressing the anger, addressing the poor parenting is really important. Those are the kinds of things that, if we can address, we increase the likelihood that this man can be gainfully employed. And keep [his] job.”

Peña graduated from the Dads Making a Difference program last month, and he just landed a welding gig. It's good money to help raise Elijah.

“I won’t be upset or upset with myself because I can now provide for him,” Peña says.

Peña says he owes their close relationship and his new job to the program — the welding classes and the Freud.