Published on February 14th, 2015 | by Louise Sloan1
Ron “Papa Bear of 3” Hall
WHY WE LOVE HIM: Ron’s experiences of abandonment and abuse fuel his passion for helping other single parents, and his determination to never, EVER bail on anyone who needs him.
“I’m not really a bear person,” says Ron Hall, known by nearly 69,000 single parents from all over the world as “Papa Bear of 3.”
“My thing is lions,” he says, pulling up the sleeve of his black “This Is What the World’s Greatest Papa Looks Like” T-shirt to show the lion tattoo on his right deltoid.
But when Ron moved the single parents’ yahoogroup he founded over to Facebook about 6 or 7 years ago, he wanted a fun username. “I wasn’t gonna make it ‘Lion King,'” he says, laughing. Ron raises his three kids on his own, and he’s fiercely protective of both them and each one of his tens of thousands of Facebook community members. So he hit on Papa Bear of 3. Now his home in small-town Fowler, Indiana has bears everywhere, sent to him by the hundreds of single parents he’s helped.
There wasn’t anyone to help Ron when he was growing up. His dad abandoned him as a baby and the abuse and neglect that he and his siblings suffered as children was so extreme that reviewers of Betty’s Child, the award-winning memoir by Ron’s half-brother Donald Dempsey, use words like “searing.” “I’m the character named Terry,” Ron says. The one who, in addition to experiencing all the craziness at home, also got molested by a stranger in the woods.
Life didn’t get much better. As a teen, Ron had his severe scoliosis, had rods put in his spine that straightened him out but kicked off a lifetime of back pain. At 16 he was adopted by his aunt and uncle, then did time in mental hospitals and ended up a ward of the court. Then, a few years out of college, Ron’s longtime girlfriend got pregnant and bailed. She left when their son Mitchell, now in college, was 9 months old, never to be seen again.
At that point in his life, Ron was still a party guy, but he took to parenthood right away. “For the first time ever, somebody needed me. There’s no other feeling.” Ron stepped up, and, suddenly on his own with an infant, went online and started researching how to be a good dad and looking for community.
There was nothing there for him. “Everything was all about moms,” Ron remembers. “There were a lot of man-haters, a lot of spam.” He felt as abandoned as he had as child, he says. Then it occurred to Ron that he could form his own group. It took off, swelling to 6,000 members on Yahoo, dwindling a bit as yahoogroups fell out of favor, and then slowly growing to the massive international community it is now. “We’re the oldest active single parents’ group on the internet,” he says proudly. “We’ve got one active member who’s from India. We have many members in Kenya.”
For Ron, who hasn’t been able to work recently due to severe nerve damage from the rods, including leg spasms and chest pain so intense he was rushed to the hospital last year for a suspected heart attack, running the group has become a full-time job. He gets hundreds of requests to join every day, and he goes through each individual’s profile to see if they’re married, or belong to groups suggesting they’re preying on single women, or if it’s a fake profile or if the person posts racist or other offensive stuff. “About three-fourths I approve and the other fourth I don’t approve,” he says.
Once in the group, it’s easy to get kicked out. There’s a long list of rules at the top of the home page, and Papa Bear regularly goes grizzly on members who don’t behave respectfully. But all the roaring pays off. Members who stay on the straight and narrow always have a place to go to where they’ll find cute baby pictures, inspirational images, and honest posts about the joys and challenges of single parenting, from dads and moms of all races, sexual orientations, nationalities…Papa Bear makes sure everyone plays nice.
One subject he often lectures members on is, basically, tolerance of difference, and gender equality in parenting. To look at him in his trademark bandana, swilling his Barq’s root beer, Ron’s not exactly the stereotype of the progressive stay-at-home dad. “People look at me like no way, you got this guy with all these tattoos, and hair growing everywhere – they look at me like I’m a mean dude, but really I’m a Teddy.” He keeps a birthday file of members and sends out happy birthdays every day. He messages back and forth with hundreds of members who want advice and support. This year he started a holiday fund for needy families. But Ron is adamant about treating all parents equally, based on their ability and willingness to step up and be a consistent, positive presence in their children’s lives. “I’m not about mothers’ rights or fathers’ rights,” he says. “I want to think that it’s equal. It should be equal.”
As all about being a dad that Ron is, he says he’d put his money where his mouth is. After being what he describes as a great mom for several years, Ron’s ex-wife, the mother of his youngest two “cubs,” Faith, 8, and Khole, 7, texted him that she needed to talk. At home later, she told him she couldn’t do it anymore. Khole has Oppositional Defiant Disorder and a host of other issues and Faith is the “poster child for ADHD,” he says. “I’m not going to lie to you, they’re hard to handle.” But Ron couldn’t wrap his head around another woman leaving her children behind. “It was the shock of my life.” They were living in Florida and Ron wanted to move back to Indiana. She dropped them off at the airport, and that is the last they heard from her. But even so, Ron says, “if their mother could show she could be consistent in the child’s life, I would give her custody, 50-50, like that. Because it’s not about me. It’s about the child.”
Ron talks very openly about his many challenges – in fact he does it on purpose, online, to help others in dire situations know they’re not alone – but his manner is strikingly upbeat. He’s always joking and when he’s not posing dourly for pictures, his smile is infectious. He’s all about looking at the positive and moving forward. “I preach this a lot in the group,” he says. “I could sit here and I could feel sorry for myself and I could say ‘poor, poor me,’ but is that gonna take care of these kids? Is that gonna take care of me?”
“I fight depression and anxiety, I fight physical issues, I fight financial issues, I fight parenting issues,” Ron says. “But my kids?” he says with such wonder and love, “They’re the best thing that ever happened to me. I can’t imagine my life without them.” He’s the kind of Papa that wants his little girl’s hair to stay long, but who will happily let her paint his fingernails pink. He’ll even dress up in a tutu.
When asked about his seemingly relentless good humor in the face of so many challenges, Ron admits that he hasn’t always been that way. In 2012 he was in a very dark place, and he overdosed repeatedly, tried to commit suicide. In April, his kids were taken in to foster care.
“It was the slap in the face I needed,” said Ron, who has struggled his whole life with depression and anxiety. “I gave up, I didn’t care anymore. I was all about me, I was selfish. I was an unfit father.”
He pulled himself together so fast that he had the kids back in four months, instead of the 18 he’d been told it would be, at the minimum. And having come to the point of losing the kids who he centers his whole life around, he says, it totally changed his perspective. He will never again let himself get that way. He will not be a parent who abandons his kids, to suicide or whatever else.
He’s as fiercely loyal to the group, as well, even though now it’s gotten so big he’s up till two or three every morning with his administrative duties. And it doesn’t make him any money. But that is not what motivates him, he says.
“Many people depend on this group. This is all they have. Now it’s not about me, creating a group for myself, it’s about me creating a group for other people.”
Ron dreams of creating recreation and support centers for single parents, or writing a book, or organizing conferences and being a motivational speaker. But with nearly 69,000 adult “cubs” to tend to, when would he find the time? “I can’t just walk away,” he says.
“For some reason I feel like God has put me here to be father to my children, and founder of this group. I want to know that the day that I die that I have done as much as I can to help other people.”
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