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John Smithbaker stands under the wide Wyoming sky teaching 7-year-old Brayden, a fatherless boy, how to swing a bat. He shows Brayden how to plant his feet. He switches the position of Brayden's hands on the bat. Brayden swings and misses. Smithbaker readjusts him, again and again.
That's what dads commonly do, but Brayden is living with his grandma and was without a father-figure in his life. That changed last December, when Smithbaker started meeting with him weekly through Fathers in the Field, an organization he founded that pairs mentor fathers with fatherless boys.
During their meetings Smithbaker teaches Brayden about their heavenly Father and prepares him for an antelope hunt at the end of the year. Brayden eats dinner at Smithbaker's house and helps his mentor's 12-year-old son with his paper route.
Brayden's grandma says he now helps around the house and always reminds her to pray before meals.
As she was explaining that Brayden has "learned that it's OK if his earthly dad left, his Heavenly dad ..."-Brayden cut her off and finished the sentence: "He stays by my side all the time and never leaves me." Father in the Field aims to help 7- to 17-year-old boys like Brayden by pairing them with mentor fathers from local churches. Mentor fathers need a pastor's reference, community reference, and background check.
The program lasts three years. The pairs meet at least four times a month: Twice to attend church, once for community service to widows, and once for outdoor activities including hunting, fishing, camping, and fixing car motors. At the end of the year, mentor fathers bring their boys, called field buddies, on a three-day trip that culminates their training.
The major benefit, said Smithbaker, is the relationship that develops through these activities. By gaining a boy's trust, he notes, mentor fathers can tell them about the love of their heavenly Father and the need to forgive their earthly abandoner.
In the United States, about 25 million children are fatherless. These children become two-thirds of prison inmates and nine out of 10 of runaway children. They are 30 percent more likely to use drugs and alcohol. They are twice as likely to drop out of school.
Smithbaker knows about fatherlessness firsthand. His dad left while his mom was pregnant with him. But Smithbaker didn't rebel. Instead he strove for perfection, hoping to win his father's affection by succeeding in school and work. When Smithbaker became a Christian at age 40, he wrote a letter to his father forgiving him and telling him about Christ. His father didn't budge, but Smithbaker felt his "soul could finally breathe."
Smithbaker approached Scott MacNaughton, then the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lander, Wyo., about starting a program to help the fatherless find healing. In 2007, the pair started a year-long pilot program by placing an ad in the local newspaper. Within a few hours, single mom Emilee King called and asked for help with her son, Masen. She was not a Christian but she liked the program's outdoor focus.
MacNaughton started meeting with Masen weekly. He taught Masen to hunt. They attended church and together worked through a Bible study book. Six months in, Masen professed faith in Christ. While he had earlier insisted to MacNaughton that he would never forgive his father for leaving, Masen now forgave him. MacNaughton baptized him a month later, and four generations of King family members-none of them professing Christians-came to the church to witness the event.
His mother has seen the difference in Masen's life: "He's now accepted that he doesn't want to chase [his father] anymore. He realized the difference between people who keep their promises and those who don't."
After the first year, MacNaughton stepped down as pastor to work on Fathers in the Field full-time. He and Smithbaker developed additional safeguards to protect the boys: Mentor pairs go on trips with two or more mentor fathers and follow all church policies. A designated church champion meets with the mentor fathers monthly for prayer and planning.
Other churches have also become involved. At Wind River Community Church in Lander, Sunday school teachers and other children befriend the field buddies, while the women's ministry reaches out to the single moms, and deacons help with financial issues. Pastor Ken Simon says Fathers in the Field not only helps the fatherless boys but provides opportunities for men to step up: "This organization brings these men to a place where they find purpose in a kid's life."
On a recent Wednesday, MacNaughton and Masen meet up with Smithbaker and Brayden outside Lander. MacNaughton helps Masen set up a new crossbow for an upcoming hunting trip. Sitting in the dirt, Masen peers through the crossbow scope and releases an arrow that hits the center of the target. Brayden, watching from the sideline, excitedly runs to retrieve the arrow.
Now 14, Masen has finished the 3-year program, but he still spends time with MacNaughton to practice shooting and to go on hunts. Masen lists animals he's hunted-turkey, antelope, and elk-and hunting strategies: "If you're hunting turkey, you need to aim at the head or the back."
But more is going on than learning about hunting. Masen is learning to take care of others. He takes Brayden on a ride on his four-wheeler, going slow as Brayden holds on tightly to the older boy. Brayden grins under a helmet two sizes too big.
"That's a rare sight to see," MacNaughton said: "Two fatherless boys helping each other."
'Close to a son'
Some 68 Christian men in 10 states are currently mentoring boys through Fathers in the Field (fathersinthefield.com). Some 230 men are in the process of enrolling in the program.
Bill Roady of Warrenton, Ore., heard about Fathers in the Field through a TV program and decided to start a branch in his church. At the same time, 8-year-old Ezra and his mother were praying for a Christian father figure in Ezra's life. When his mom heard about the program, she signed her son up. Over the past year Roady and Ezra have shot rifles, watched movies, and gone to an end-of-year crab shoot with three other mentor pairs.
At first Ezra would not let Roady out of his sight whenever they met up, but Roady said the boy has started to trust him more: "I feel like I'm so blessed and privileged to be in a position to do this. I've grown very fond of Ezra and not having a son myself, he's close to being a son to me."
Contributions and other revenue for Fathers in the Field in 2010, according to IRS filings, totaled $180,000, with expenses of $176,000.
The organization at the end of 2010 had net assets of $30,000.
Its full-time officer, Scott MacNaughton, received a salary of $53,000.
This year's budget: $225,000.
Vote for the 2012 winner and read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2012 on WORLD's Hope Award page.