Meet Australia's Community Father of the Year

A faith-driven father figure to many

When 38-year-old Perth dad Rick Pekan was named 2022 Community Father of the Year, his wife and kids were rightly bursting with pride, but they also found it “quite entertaining”.

“I joke with the kids and say, ‘You now have to refer to me as Father of the Year,” Rick, who happens to work in Community and Church Relations for Bible Society Australia, tells Eternity.

“But then my wife can also say, ‘Hey, Father of the Year, go unload the dishwasher or go help the kids with their homework because you’re Father of the Year,” he laughs.

Rick is dad to four biological kids – Adley (15), Nevaeh (13), Caden (10) and Liana (7) – as well as two long-term foster children. He’s also been a father figure to over 50 other children in Out-Of-Home Care, who have been welcomed into their home over the past 12 years. And he’s been a mentor to many more as a youth group leader – including at their current church, Lifestreams Christian Church South Perth – and as a volunteer and umpire for kids’ weekend sport competitions.

“The most important legacy we can leave is devoting time to the future generations.” – Rick Pekan

Not bad for a man who had never held a child before becoming a dad at the age of 23 – as Rick’s wife Louise pointed out when nominating him for the award. In receiving the honour today from national charity The Fathering Project, Pekan joined the ranks of retired Australian soccer player Craig Foster AM (nicknamed Fozzy), who was named 2022 Australian Father of the Year.

Rick and Louise took a short break from parenting to fly to Sydney to attend today’s Fathering Awards ceremony. It was a big-deal event, hosted by MasterChef Australia winner Adam Liaw, with a keynote address by well-known Australian parenting expert Maggie Dent.

At the ceremony, another WA dad Isaac Thomas took out the Australian Sports Father of the Year for his “Tryathon” initiative in public schools, which raises money for underprivileged kids, and KPMG Australia was named winner of Australia’s Best Workplace for Fathers.

The Fathering Awards are particularly important to Rick as he has been involved with The Fathering Project for over eight years.

“I’ve been part of the dad’s groups that they run at schools, and it’s been an amazing encouragement. So I have high respect for the Fathering Project and [the founder] Bruce Robinson’s work. It has made a difference in my fatherhood, the little tips and tools that they give, and their video channel is really helpful.”

Rick especially likes the “Weekly Recipes for Dads” section on the Fathering Channel, which he enjoys cooking with his daughter, Liana.

“The mentors in my life invested in me and gave me opportunity. They empowered me to do things.”

Yet despite the hype around his award, Rick says adamantly, “I don’t want this award to be about me. I want it to be about encouraging other dads that, actually, if I can win Father of the Year, anyone can. There’s nothing overly special about me. It’s just about putting the time and energy into your kids because that’s the most important legacy that we can leave – more important than our career, our work, our sport or anything like that. The most important legacy we can leave is devoting time to the future generations.”

One of the most significant aspects of the award, says Rick, is being recognised not just as a biological dad but as a foster dad and father figure. Louise points out that “one of the most amazing things Rick has done is continue to build a relationship with a child who left the family home nearly eight years ago. He is known as ‘daddy Rick’ within the fostering community and has multiple kids who seek out his attention for guidance.”

“It’s about being a mentor and a support to young people,” says Rick, noting that he is “very grateful” for some of the father figures in his own life, particularly during his high school and early university years.

“I did have a dad growing up and he cared for every one of my practical needs. He worked hard and did a lot of night shifts. I always had a house, always had food, things like that. But he wasn’t always there for me in other ways,” Rick shares.

“I was very blessed to have a dad, and I’m very conscious that many just grow up without any biological dad or with an abusive or difficult dad,” he is quick to add.

“But when I was young in church and youth group, I had father figures. I had youth group leaders and mentors and encouragers in my life. My family came from a lot of divorce, so people would often look at me and say, ‘How are you so normal when you’ve come from such interesting family circumstances?’

“In many ways, I wouldn’t have been, but the mentors in my life invested in me and gave me opportunity. They empowered me to do things, even as a high school kid, even as someone who was a bit annoying and on the fringes in some ways, personality-wise. And so I’m very grateful for some of the father figures in my life.”

“A present and involved dad does make a huge difference.”

Rick takes a very intentional parenting approach to the kids he and Louise care for in their home. When asked what makes a good dad, his immediate response is, “presence – someone who’s there.”

“I think it’s easy for dads and for men either to bury themselves in their shed or bury themselves on the couch watching TV or in whatever interests they have.

“It’s OK to do those things, but it’s about either doing those things with your kids or actually stepping up from the couch or stepping out of the shed and spending some time with your kids – being present with them, putting the phone down, switching off the sporting game and just listening, having a conversation.

“Obviously mums play such an important role for kids emotionally and stability-wise. They carry a huge mental load for families. But there’s a lot of research that says that a present and involved dad makes a huge impact on kids as they get older. The benefits of this extend to kids’ education and their spiritual and emotional well-being. A present and involved dad does make a huge difference.”

“The love of our family can help make a difference and can help heal some of the brokenness that’s out there in the world.”

It seems impossible for a dad like Rick, with so many kids, to lend his undivided attention to each one. Rick attributes his success in doing this, in part, to his “amazing wife, who helps a lot of that happen and really manages a lot of the parts of that.”

He adds, “We very strategically do special things with each kid. Our family made a decision a long time ago, instead of always holidaying together – all the family, when there’s eight of us and it’s really expensive – for Louise and I to each take a special trip with each kid when they’re around 8 to 12 years old. So they have come back to America with me to see family or we go to a sporting event or my wife took my daughter on a Compassion trip.”

Rather than being disadvantaged by having a large family, especially as they regularly take in children from Out-of-Home Care, Rick believes this has played an important role in shaping his children’s worldview.

“I think it gives you perspective outside the world that many of us live in – the privileged world. I’m a privileged white guy in a middle-income family, so a lot of times, families like mine don’t experience trauma; of course, a lot of families do.

“But we’re actually intentionally bringing some of the trauma into our family to help make a difference, to help uplift kids who need homes. The reality is there are 50,000 kids in Australia who are in Out-of-Home Care that need loving families. That’s something that I feel we need to be a part of.

“I hope it gives my kids perspective to see life beyond our four walls, our safe environment – that actually, there’s hurt and pain out there. And the love of our family can help make a difference and can help heal some of the brokenness that’s out there in the world.”

Most of the Pekan family

Rick, Louise and their children (minus their foster children whose faces can’t be shown)

Rick says his Christian faith is the driving force behind their fostering and his call to be a father figure to other kids.

“The work that God has made us for is to love and care for our neighbours. For our family, our neighbours are, in some cases, foster kids, kids who don’t have loving homes.”

The legacy gifts that Rick aims to give all the kids in his world include “positivity, encouragement and a sense of stability.” Above all, however, he wants to offer them unconditional love.

“There’s an immense need in our world for people to be loved and cherished,” says Rick. “Today, kids are often expected to perform in order to be valued and cherished, whether that’s in school, sports or music or anything else. But what a father figure and a father need to do is to love them before the performance. They are their trusted person who loves and cares for them, no matter how they perform.”