Wellington husband and father John Sitomer had survived his first bout with cancer, but the second was really taking a toll. He was one of a few people chosen to participate in an experimental trial, but several years in, things still looked grim.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not,” Sitomer recalled. “A friend of mine brought me a book, but it was eight, maybe 10, months before I could even open it up and turn a page.”
The book was The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler, a college professor with a young family who had already walked in Sitomer’s shoes. He battled bone cancer, worried about what would become of his children if he died, eventually assembling a group of people — the Council of Dads — to help look after them if he didn’t make it.
Each “dad” had unique knowledge or skills that Feiler knew his children would need to learn someday. He told the men that he knew they had their own lives; that he wasn’t asking them to adopt his children, but what he wanted was for them to take the thing they were proficient in and pass it on to his children.
Feiler survived, and when he did, he realized that his children could still benefit by associating with the other dads. In fact, many children could.
Sitomer took the book to heart.
“I got so nervous that I wasn’t going to make it, that I got out a pen and legal pad and started making a list of 50 or 60 names, friends I had in the community who I’ve always had tremendous respect for — an athlete, a banker, a motivational speaker — people I knew who might be able to help guide my son.”
In April 2018, Sitomer founded the local Council of Dads. He began by taking each of his first nine contacts to lunch, where he explained the group’s mission and asked them if they would be willing to pass on their skill set to children who are underprivileged and “could use this positive push.”
To his surprise, the response was 100 percent positive. “Almost every one of them started crying,” Sitomer said. “They not only said yes, but they told me they’d been waiting for a vehicle like this their entire lives. The thing that — pleasantly — surprised me the most was that those with the most skills, who had done well in their lives and were so, so busy, were absolutely open to giving back. They had just been waiting to be led to the right scenario.”
The first Council of Dads project was sports related.
“In 2018, the first thing we did was a basketball summer camp for underprivileged children with former NBA player Marcus Hubbard. For anyone who couldn’t afford it, it was free,” Sitomer said. “After that, we started a mentoring program that another of our dads, Dr. Gordon Johnson, spearheads. If a child has problems at home — disciplinary, behavioral, depression — if they need a shoulder to lean on, we’re there. Gordon heads up our mentoring program. He will take the child to dinner or meet them at the library or Panera Bread to talk things out. Especially with parental problems, we’ve been that middle ground where we’ve been able to solve a lot of family issues.”
Johnson, a pathologist and retired chief of staff at Wellington Regional Medical Center, currently sits on the boards of Wellington Regional Medical Center and the Wellington Community Foundation, as well as being a key player in the Council of Dads. Last month, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Palm Beach County Medical Society. He and his own son, Grant, are both financial planners with Merrill Lynch. Johnson saw a specific problem he wanted to address.
“I’d see these kids who are good at basketball and their ‘plan’ is to get recruited by UCLA and then play for the Boston Celtics. They didn’t know what an SAT was; they didn’t know how to apply for college; and they had no backup plan,” Johnson said.
Sitomer agreed that many underprivileged kids need tutoring, but tutoring is very expensive. So, he met with Robin Carrier, the director of college services at The King’s Academy.
“We had a series of meetings, and I don’t know how we pulled this off, but we did,” Sitomer said. “The students in TKA’s exceptional student program need community service hours to get into college, and we offered to document that in exchange for them tutoring our children in need. Now in its third year, this is probably the most exceptional program we’ve done to date. The kids are tutored in English, math, social studies, Spanish and science for two hours a night, twice a week (now via Zoom). They are even tutored for free during SAT and ACT season, something that usually costs $100 for course work. Last year, the grades of the students who accepted the free tutoring went up by more than 100 points across the board.”
The Council of Dads also hosts an annual dinner. It was held at Walt Disney World last year. It recognizes any student in their program who has maintained a 4.0 GPA. Last year, 20 to 25 students were honored with scholar achievement awards, cash, gift certificates and more.
“We’ve got nine men and one woman in our council,” Sitomer said. “They’re upstanding members of the community. But I wanted the youth of the community — the ones we’re helping — to work with us in some of these initiatives and try to do good. We hooked up with the Wellington Wolves Basketball Association, one of the largest and most successful basketball organizations in the state, even though 20 percent of families that play are underprivileged already. We worked with In Jacob’s Shoes, a charitable organization that provides refurbished sneakers and shoes to the underprivileged.”
Sitomer asked the organization what their biggest donation of shoes, ever, had been. The answer was 2,000 pairs. “We’re going to beat that,” Sitomer said, and a year later, the children of the Council of Dads families had donated 3,563 pairs.
“Everyone was pitching in,” Sitomer recalled gleefully. “The kids asked their neighbors, friends and relatives.”
The children and their families also help the Soup Kitchen of Boynton Beach, especially at Thanksgiving. For the past three years, they have donated dry goods, diapers and other baby needs.
When Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, the Council of Dads held fundraising drives to buy generators, blankets, food, tents, lighting, batteries, flashlights, medical supplies and more for Marsh Harbour in the Abaco Islands.
“I personally brought over five cargo planes filled with every kind of supply and six 40-foot containers filled with roofing supplies,” Sitomer said. “I hate to put a dollar figure on it, but it was way in excess of $1 million.”
Sitomer’s son — the very first child he set out to help — will soon be 17 years old. “I tell him not to embrace the melancholy,” Sitomer said. “How I’m here is a medical miracle, and I’m really determined to make good use of my time. My son and wife were traumatized by years of medical struggle, but we can’t look back, we’ve got to look forward.”
Every day is a blessing to him, and extra time to help others.
“Every waking day, I literally try to do good for someone else,” Sitmoer said. “I’m able to piggyback on the good works of so many other people who want to do good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with charities, it’s that people very rarely say no to a charitable request. They just need to know what the vehicle is and what you want them to do. It’s also important that you make sure that what you’ve told them you’re going to do actually happens.”
Sitomer sometimes marvels at the company he keeps within the Council of Dads.
“No one left us, even through COVID-19 and their own struggles in their own lives,” he said. “We still have the original 10. Gordon Johnson is one of the most spectacular men I’ve ever met in my life, and I pale in comparison to my other members as well.”
Johnson, however, thinks Sitomer sells himself short.
“I just come in when John Sitomer tells me to come in,” Johnson explained.
Aside from Sitomer and Johnson, members of the Council of Dads include: Gerry Stumm, vice president of City Fire Inc.; Howard Eisenberg, director of Solution Services; Grant Johnson, wealth manager at Merrill Lynch; David Kane, senior practice director of Application Consulting; Dr. James Shecter, an emergency room doctor at the VA Medical Center; property developer Jeff Sitomer; Robin Carrier, director of college advising at TKA; and Chris Fratalia, president of the Wellington Wolves.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what our group has done to date,” Sitomer said. “Without this dedicated group, I would have no council. And when we see the end of the virus, we’re going to perfect what we’re doing and bring the Council of Dads ‘Theory of Movement’ around the United States.”