YMCA's Princess Program 

The Royal Treatment: Bringing fathers and daughters closer together

"Fathers and daughters making memories and friends always."

It's a simple slogan, but one that's come to mean a lot to Paul MacDonald. In fact, for the last three years it's been his personal mission. MacDonald is the founder of the Charleston Chapter of the Y-Princess Program, a YMCA club that works to foster companionship between father and daughter through organized activities.

It all started because of a promise. When MacDonald arrived in Mt. Pleasant from Mission Viejo, Calif., in July 2004, things in the Lowcountry looked pretty good. Except, as his daughters Brittany and Ally quickly pointed out, one thing was missing — The Y-Princess Program.

"When we moved here, I told my girls they could continue to participate in the program, and I intended to keep that promise," MacDonald says. Since the Charleston YMCA didn't have a Y-Princess program, he decided to start a chapter himself.

Contacting media and handing out over 5,000 flyers throughout the East Cooper School District, MacDonald quickly got a buzz going. The overall message was: "Looking for a few good dads."

In a time when it's become increasingly difficult for fathers and daughters to spend quality time together, the Y-Princess program gives dads the opportunity to take time out and be a part of those critical years.

The project, which started in 1926, has its roots in an idealized version of the American Indian culture. The program's founder, Harold S. Keltner, with the help of Ojibwa tribe member Joe Friday, originally called the program Y-Indian Guides. They created it to "support the father's vital role as teacher, counselor, and friend to his son," according to YMCA's website. This later spawned the father/daughter version, the Indian Princess Program, which debuted in Fresno, Calif., in 1954.

"The whole goal of the program," MacDonald explains, "is to strengthen dads' and daughters' relationships." This is clearly a message the Lowcountry understands; as of today nearly 200 dads and daughters are involved locally.

"We do all kinds of activities," adds Paul Lankau, another father involved in the program. "I know one of my daughter's favorites was pajama bowling." Girls were woken up bright and early and taken to the lanes to bowl at 7 a.m. in their PJs.

"Oh yeah, dads were in their pajamas too," Lankau admitted sheepishly.

But it's not just silly activities at ungodly hours for these dedicated dads. It's an investment in their daughters' future. Tribes of 10 to 12 individuals meet once a month, usually at one of the members' homes for games, crafts, and sing-a-longs. Then there are nation meetings where all tribal members from the area meet to do a larger activity. On a recent Saturday, the activity involved a day-long nature hike through Bulls Island.

"We saw all kinds of alligators," says Lankau, recognizing that some squeamish parents may not have been too thrilled about that.

So where do mothers come into play? They don't.

"If anything, it's a break for the moms. They can have a Saturday off to hang out with their girlfriends," says MacDonald.

And that's exactly the point. This is a dad orchestrated, organized, and implemented operation. "When we were recruiting, I heard some wives tell their husbands, 'Oh you should get involved in that,' but ultimately if the dad's not into it himself, it's not going to work," he adds.

It isn't just about the dads, however; the girls are benefiting as much or more.

"I've just seen the confidence my daughter has gained over the past year," Lankau says of his six-year-old. "One of our first tribal meetings was at a member's house that had a zip line in his backyard. At first my daughter didn't want to go, but then after watching the other girls for a while she said, 'Daddy will you help me?'" Lankau remembers. "I was scared to death because there was only a handlebar to hold on to, but she went flying down, and you should have seen her big smile when she got off. She was so proud of herself." A small achievement now and ultimately a huge boost to a six-year-old's fragile ego.

Paul Stoney, president of the Charleston YMCA, has witnessed the changes in the members' lives and also those in the community.

"Last Christmas," Stoney explains, "each dad and daughter gave a gift to a Y-Kid." Y-Kids, another YMCA program, was established to fulfill the organization's mandate to provide access to Y facilities for needy children.

"It's important to teach our daughters to give back. They need to realize how lucky they are," says Lankau of the event. "All the kids just got out there and started interacting with each other, exchanging presents."

"It's really just a blessing for the children and the families," says Stoney. With community outreach a major focus, the girls and dads are hoping to not only continue to develop volunteer programs, but also work to improve diversity within the Y-Princess Program, as well as create a broader outreach in the Lowcountry.

Interestingly, of the 200 participants no current members reside on the peninsula, something organizers hope to remedy.

Call him an idealist, but Craig Schmitt, senior program director of the YMCA, believes it's true that "kids really don't see color, or anything else." Which means no exclusions.

Any father with a daughter between the ages of 5-12 can sign up to join. Membership is $75 per father/child pair and $15 per additional child. Financial assistance is available. All meeting dates are chosen within each individual tribe so as to accommodate the fathers' schedules, and the commitment is only two to four hours a month.

"You know it just goes so fast, and if you miss it, that's it," says MacDonald reflecting on childhood. Luckily for the girls involved, their dads won't miss a thing.


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