The trainers got their own chance in February to talk to each other about their fathers.
The men and women who would guide Nebraska inmates through classes in becoming better fathers twisted pipe cleaners to illustrate their father-son, father-daughter relationships.
They described fathers who hid their emotions in beer cans, who did the best they could but often failed, who worked dawn to dusk and met their children on their own terms.
One described his dad as a looming presence, and very unpredictable.
"He loved me, but often it was hard to tell," the man said. "It was always hard to tell which dad I was going to see."
A woman said her dad was a leaning post, who would listen to her concerns and embrace her issues without judgment.
Another man showed with his pipe cleaners how his relationship with his dad was tightly woven in his early years, but came unraveled when the child turned 13, after his mother died.
One by one, they pulled their words from bottomless places.
"This is stuff that goes deep," said Greg Austen, director of corrections programming with the National Fatherhood Initiative.
Austen was in Lincoln in February to lead training on the InsideOut Dad program for fathers in prison. Having trainers share their own stories was part of that.
"God doesn't waste pain," Austen said.
There is redemption in these stories.
Christian Heritage worked with the Nebraska Department of Corrections to offer the InsideOut Dad programs. Classes have been held now at five prisons in Lincoln, Omaha and Tecumseh. Another is scheduled for the Work Ethic Camp in McCook.
"It's been really exciting to have so many classes going," said Gregg Nicklas, co-CEO at Christian Heritage, "and to be able to attend some of the graduations and hear men talk about reconnecting with their families and the successes they're having, and how InsideOut Dad has helped."
InsideOut Dad, developed by the National Fatherhood Initiative, connects inmates to their families and prepares them for release. With that, they are more likely to embrace freedom and not return to prison, program officials say.
The program is open to any inmate, said Mary Alley, parenting program coordinator, but priority is given to fathers who have the potential to reunite with their families. Most will get out; the average length of time served in Nebraska prisons is two to three years.
InsideOut Dad helps inmates deal with their own father-son past. The 12-class program also covers fatherhood roles, masculinity, physical and mental health, spirituality, emotions, relationships, discipline and child development.
Inmates create a plan on fathering from inside prison and to reestablish ties to their children.
About half of the more than 4,000 males in the prison system are dads, Alley said. The hope is to offer the program this year to about 840 inmates, with connections to around 2,000 children.
Lester Wagner is father to two of those kids.
Wagner, 38, has been in prison 10 years and has another five to serve for manslaughter and use of a weapon to commit a felony.
He took the classes at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
His two girls were 6 and 2 when he came to prison. Both live out of state now. He talks to the oldest, a teenager, regularly on the phone, but has had only the briefest of contact with the youngest.
The oldest has told her father she wants to visit him at the pen. He tells her to put that money toward her education instead.
Wagner learned from the class how powerful a father is in a child's life - good or bad. It taught him to open up to his daughter, to let her know he wanted her in his life. He talks to her a lot about school, he said.
Robert Brown has two sons and a daughter, is 26, and has been at the penitentiary two years for possessing a stolen gun. He is scheduled to get out in 2012.
One son is in Nebraska; the other two children live out of state.
Brown remembers being in and out of jail since he was 11 or 12. No one seemed to be around much to provide discipline when he was young, he said, and he did pretty much whatever he wanted.
It's hard now, he said, not to be around his own kids, to teach them not to make the mistakes he did, to show them he loves them.
"The hardest thing for me is to express my feelings," he said.
Recent statistics show 24 million children are growing up without their biological fathers. That's up from 8 million in 1960.
The absence of fathers shows up starkly in prisons.
Seven of 10 inmates grew up with abusive fathers, or didn't know their fathers.
A lot of single moms do an admirable job, Austen said, but there's no mistaking the positive influence of a good father.
A child needs to feel cared about, even by a dad who is locked away, he said.
"By and large," Austen said, "we want to send the message to dads about their irreplaceable role."
They often think a mother, a grandparent or a stepparent can replace them. But kids who grow up without their biological dads grow up with significant baggage, he said.
"There's a hole in their heart in the shape of dad."
Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.