University of North Texas
Breaking the Cycle: Paul Juarez’s journey of fatherhood
“Nothing replaces having a dad in your life,” says Paul Juarez. He knows because he fought hard to break the cycle of neglect and trauma with his own family. Juarez now volunteers as an instructor for a court-ordered parenting class called “Focus on Fathers” with the Christian ministry, New Day Services. He says it is his calling to help struggling fathers in the Denton area become better parents.
By Sadie Brown
On a chill Monday evening in November of 2019, a classroom in the back wing of Cross Timbers Church fills with the voices of a group of men who had plenty of other things they could be doing that night.
Neon orange walls and fluorescent lighting are hardly a comfortable environment to wind down the first day of the workweek, but there is a certain ease about the room. The men had grown familiar with one another in their nine weeks together, and next week they would be saying goodbye. It’s nearing the end of a ten-week, court-ordered parenting class called “Focus on Fathers.” After graduation, these men would go back to their lives and hopefully their children.
These men have been separated from their children through state intervention. Attendance at parenting classes is just one of the requirements each man must satisfy before regaining custody of their kids. This experience marks a painful and confusing time for the men, but for volunteer class leader, Paul Juarez, Mondays are the highlight of his week. Juarez feels called to connect with struggling fathers in the Denton area and share his experience in hopes of reuniting fathers with their children.
At the front of the room, Juarez addresses the class. He’s dressed, as usual, in jeans and a blue polo with a manicured, salt-and-pepper goatee long enough to nearly brush against the grey sweater pulled over his shirt. Pacing back and forth, Juarez detours from the curriculum to share a memory of his own son, Drew.
His expressive hands pay no mind to the dry erase marker he still holds as they wave about with enthusiasm. He tells the men about spending quality time exploring his 14-year-old’s love of percussion.
“The high school band was performing over at the stadium on Loop 288 and he asked if we could go,” Juarez says. “They weren’t going to start until ten o’clock at night and I said, ‘Absolutely!’” his voice getting louder and a wicked grin spreading across his face.
“My wife went to sleep, and we went out there and loved it,” Juarez says. “Driving home, he just looked at me and said, ‘Thanks for taking me, Dad. That was fun.’”
A Struggling Father
Juarez understands the devastation of a father being separated from his children. The man he describes himself being 15 years ago bears no resemblance to the person at the front of that classroom encouraging, accepting and pushing his students to be better.
He worked his way into upper management positions in grocery stores like Winn Dixie and Tom Thumb. Juarez devoted his time and energy to elevating his position at the expense of others, including his family
“I was in it for me,” Juarez says. “I stepped on people’s shoulders to move up, I did anything and everything if it meant I looked better.”
While he focused on his career, life at home started to fall apart.
“I learned about marriage through movies, through seeing fake couples,” Juarez says. “I really believed that fighting and arguing was just a part of marriage. That’s what I saw growing up.”
When his first wife asked for a divorce, Juarez described a sense of confusion that he now attributes to a fundamental lack of understanding what it truly means to be a husband. He would later recognize that moment as a warning of all the parallels between himself and his own father.
“My dad was in prison three different times,” Juarez says. “He really wasn’t involved in my life much growing up. Being a guy I kind of tried to cover it up by not acknowledging that it had any kind of effect on me, but I was wrong.”
It wasn’t until Juarez was coping with the fallout of his own choices that he realized the profound impact his father’s absence had on him. He lacked the essential guidance, support and discipline that a father can bring to a young man’s development. Learning life’s lessons from movies and a culture that prized money and status over family values shaped Juarez into a man he never intended to become.
“Because my dad was not in my life, I really saw this divorce as me not being in my daughter’s life,” Juarez says.
Juarez says being separated from his then 4-year-old daughter, Tori, should have been the wake-up call he needed, but he still didn’t know how to have a healthy relationship and a family. Eventually, he fathered another child in a failed relationship and was living apart from both of his children.
The Cycle of Pain
Juarez dims the lights in the classroom and the men turn their attention to the television at the front of the room.
Posted on the wall next to the screen is a large sheet of paper where each father has written in green marker the names of all their children along with words that describe them: strong, joy, loving, ambitious, compassionate and smart. It’s a little reminder of who the men are fighting for.
He starts a clip from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” that shows the emotional devastation of Will Smith’s character’s relationship with his absentee father. At first, Will seems unfazed by his father’s unreliable nature but, as the scene progresses, he becomes enraged and suddenly breaks down into tears – a young boy again who feels rejected by his father.
The clip ends but its intensity hangs in the air, seemingly striking a chord with some of the men. The room settles into an awkward silence until Juarez makes his way to the front of the room, wiping tears from his eyes.
The video begins a conversation about the men’s relationships to their own fathers and the generational suffering caused by a cycle of neglect and absence.
“The majority of men that I teach did not have their father in their life, so they never had an example either,” Juarez says.
Personal experience allows Juarez to connect with fathers in his class and reach them without judgment or superiority.
“If I were to come in here and it was someone that I couldn’t relate to, it would have been a lot more difficult to relate to the material,” a participant named Matt says.
Healing a Family
Around the third time, Juarez’s father was released from prison, Juarez was arrested for a DWI. He saw himself repeating the same patterns he witnessed in his father.
“Rock bottom was that I was becoming just like my dad,” Juarez says.
During that last stay in prison, Juarez’s father became a born-again Christian, completely turning his life around. Despite sustaining years of frayed relationships, broken promises and bouts of alcoholism between prison stays, Juarez believed him.
He grew up without a dad, without someone to guide him through childhood. But, instead of blaming his father for the pain and mistakes, they moved forward together.
“I was tired of living that sort of life and really didn’t like who I was,” Juarez says. “I forgave my dad, and after a while, I forgave myself for the things I did when I was younger. Life’s too short to spend too much time focusing on your mistakes.”
Juarez’s father, who had brought him so much heartache, was also the person who helped him find faith. His father had become the man that Juarez had always needed and that gave him hope for himself. Together, they were able to heal their own relationship and become new men.
“All the brokenness in my past is not what defines me,” Juarez says. “What defines me is who God says I am.”
Juarez married Barbie Jones in 2015 and he describes their relationship as one of mutual respect, love and faith. They now lead a Christian dating class to help others date with intention, healthy boundaries and faith.
“God has rewarded me with blessings and in ways that people can’t understand, and I can’t even describe sometimes,” he says.
Now, Juarez looks to that faith to guide his actions, mentioning Jesus’s call to care for widows, orphans and the poor.
“Widows nowadays are single moms. Orphans nowadays are kids that don’t have a dad in their life,” he says.
In August 2016, he accepted a position that allows him to serve needy families every day as the Executive Director of First Refuge Ministries in Denton. The nonprofit partners with churches, medical and dental providers, licensed professional counselors and the North Texas Food Bank to provide assistance to Denton families free of charge.
Juarez doesn’t think it was a coincidence when in 2015 he met a man at a networking event who worked with a nonprofit called New Day Services that offered parenting classes for fathers and mothers. When Juarez sat in on that first class, he says he was “sold.”
He has been leading the Focus on Fathers group ever since. In his time volunteering, Juarez has graduated ten classes of fathers ranging in size from eight to 16 men in each class. With the onset of COVID-19, classes have gone online and although Juarez misses the in-person connection he gets with his students, he is committed to serving these men, even in a global pandemic.
A New Purpose
The Monday before Thanksgiving is graduation. The men file in from the cold carrying Tupperware full of deviled eggs, mac and cheese, ribs, rolls and brownies for their celebratory potluck. One man sounds disappointed that his deviled eggs toppled over in their container on the way to the church.
“I bet you we still eat them,” Juarez says.
After a healthy dose of food and familiar laughter, Juarez steps to the front of the room to begin the final class.
“Any good news today?” he says.
Robert, a member of the group, raises his hand and says the paperwork for his custody case was filed that morning.
“Praise God,” Juarez says. A few others share their own good news, while Juarez passes out stacks of paper before telling the group about their project for the evening.
“I want you to write a letter to your children,” he says. Write it like you will never see them again and this is the last thing you get to say to them.”
For 15 minutes the only sounds in the room are pens gliding across the paper and the aches and groans of plastic chairs as the men shift in their seats. One man gets up to fetch a second sheet of paper, the first one failing to offer enough space to capture a father’s love.
As the group writes, Juarez paces around the room, making sure the students are focused. Once they finish composing, a few members of the group read their letters to the class. Most contain messages of love and encouragement for their children. Others – apologies for past mistakes.
Listening intently, Juarez starts to cry.
“You alright, Paul?” Arthur, another member of the group says.
Wiping tears from the corner of his eyes, Juarez bobs his head.
“Y’all know me by now,” he says with a bashful grin. “I’m not going to apologize for being emotional.”
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