MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
An office adorned with colorful finger paintings can speak volumes of the person who works there.
A “daddy” necklace hangs on the wall, wooden shelves are stocked with parenting books and a Captain America motif sets a light-hearted mood in this office.
Most people would assume the office belonged to a proud parent. In this case, the assumption couldn’t be more accurate.
The National Fatherhood Initiative selected Navy Lt. Dennis Kelly, the chaplain of 1st Radio Battalion and 1st Intelligence Battalion, as one of three finalists for the Military Fatherhood Award. The NFI is an organization that aims to improve the well-being of children by promoting responsible fatherhood.
According to their website, the Military Fatherhood Award recognizes and lifts up as an example, a military dad who displays an ongoing commitment and dedication to his children, makes extraordinary efforts to father from a distance or while deployed, successfully balances military and family life, and makes an effort to mentor other military fathers and military children. All contestants submitted an essay about fatherhood and three participants were chosen as finalists.
“The three finalists are all very involved with their kids,” said Kelly, 38, from Dallas. “They’re not just a provider, but are emotionally and intimately involved with their kids.”
The award winner will be decided by popular vote on NFI’s Facebook page starting April 23 and will continue until May 20.
Kelly, a blond haired blue-eyed father of five children including twins, is more than a just a dad. He coaches his daughter’s soccer team and teaches Sunday school and Bible study at his church. He’s also a Tiger Cub den leader for his son’s Cub Scouts pack. While Kelly wears many hats, he’s also the chauffer that makes sure his children arrive at their activities on time.
“I try to find activities that are meaningful to them and they enjoy doing,” said Kelly, a 16-year Navy veteran. “It’s a special privilege that we have to be fathers. I consider that God has entrusted this task to me and has uniquely qualified me to do it. The most important things with being a dad are intentionality, not being lazy and doing the hard work, because it is hard work.”
Kelly meets with Marines and sailors who seek spiritual, marital and parenting advice. When families ask for guidance, Kelly doesn’t boast about his parenting skills. He refers to literature and parenting materials, such as handouts and websites he uses to help him in his parenting.
“He’s constantly trying to do better and learn more, yet he’s so humble about it,” said J.J. Dentel, the family readiness officer of 1st Intelligence Bn. “He doesn’t stop learning.”
Kelly occasionally brings his children to work with him because of his busy schedule and incorporates them into his job and ministry.
“He doesn’t try to isolate them from the military side of his life,” said Lt. Col. Keith Parry, the commanding officer of 1st Radio Bn. “The things that we can do to support the families are absolutely vital for the command and for me.”
Kelly, who smiles ear-to-ear when talking about his children, spends time to show each child love and attention individually, but enjoys having his family all together at an event or activity.
“It’s important to Dennis to spend time with each kid and to do activities that are important to them,” said his wife, Brandy. “He knows they are different and knows what they like. They each know that they are important to daddy.”
Mrs. Kelly nominated her husband for the prestigious award. She describes her husband as a hard worker to likes to play hard. She also applauded her husband’s determination to fit family time in his busy schedule while deployed. “During Dennis’ last deployment, he was committed to spending time with the kids,” she said. “He would write letters, draw pictures, make video recording, or phone calls. The kids loved to receive mail. Dennis made over 60 videos through United Through Reading for the kids, including a chapter at a time through a book series for our oldest.”
Service members are often faced with long periods of time away from their family to participate in exercises and deployments. Kelly believes it’s important for military families to make the best of the time they have with each other.
“In the military, we’re gone enough,” said Kelly. “I think it’s important that when we’re here, to be present and not detached. It’s important to maximize the time that we have between our deployment schedules.”
Kelly didn’t have a solid father figure in his life until he was a teen. He expresses his appreciation for fathers who involve themselves in their kid’s life. His best advice he says is to “be the type of father your sons will one day want to be like.”
“One of the reasons that it’s so important to me to be a good dad is because I know what it’s like to not have a dad,” he said. “Even now, it’s something that affects me. I think about what I missed by not having a dad.”
Being actively engaged in his children’s lives is among his highest priorities. He’s excited to be a finalist for the award, but wishes more fathers would spend more time with their kids.
“It’s an honor, but it’s sad to me that what I do is considered exceptional,” he said. “I almost wish I didn’t make it and that all dad’s were doing what I was doing.”
Each finalist submitted a video highlighting their parenting, which can be viewed on www.facebook.com/nationalfatherhoodinitiative. The winner of the Military Fatherhood Award will be decided by popular vote on an application that will be hosted on the NFIs Facebook page beginning Monday, April 23 at noon. Voters must ‘Like’ the NFI page to vote and can vote every day until May 20.