By ANN-MARIE MAY
AS a longtime member of the 'never-ever' club, Derek Ridgley had no intention of ever having children.
But now, as he looks down at his 13-month-old daughter, Lillie, he can't imagine life without her.
"I was a never-ever man ? never, ever going to have kids. Now just try and take her away from me," Mr Ridgley said.
Always keeping one eye on his little girl, it is hard to believe that this proud father ever thought that way.
Mr Ridgley is the primary carer for Lillie, with his wife, Kerry, working three days a week for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
"Having Lillie has completely changed my life," he said.
In 2000 Mr Ridgley feel ill, diagnosed with Q Fever, Ross River Fever and Barmah Forest Fever, forcing him to let go of his timber business.
"I was an impatient person before I fell ill, but I had to learn patience. That's been more so since Lillie was born," he said.
Helping him make this life-changing transition is the Uniting Care Burnside Men In Families Program, founded in Coffs Harbour in 2000.
The program encourages and supports first-time fathers in their new role as parents.
So successful has it been in Coffs Harbour that the Victorian Child Protection Agency has just received a grant to adopt the program.
"The program encourages dads to get involved in their child's life from the start," Mr Ridgley said.
For him it has provided a support network that has made all the difference.
"I absolutely recommend the program to all fathers. It's not just great for the parents, but for the kids, also," Mr Ridgley said.
Called 'I'm A Dad', the program begins in the antenatal classes, highlighting the changes that both parents will go through following the birth of their child.
Those antenatal classes formed the basis of Mr Ridgley's support group.
"I'm the only guy regularly attending our (post-baby) group, but the women don't seem to mind. I can change nappies and do all those things," he said.
The group get together every Tuesday, whether it be for a walk at the Jetty foreshores or at someone's house where the kids can all play together.
And, sometimes, a simple chat is all that's needed.
"Something will happen and I'll wonder how I'm going to cope, so I'll phone someone from the program and usually find out they are going through the same thing," Mr Ridgley said.
"You need all the help you can get when you become a father ? so take it."